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Zulgad: Wisconsin loss presents Gophers with a golden opportunity

The fact the visiting Gophers destroyed Rutgers on Saturday afternoon came as no surprise. Minnesota entered as 28.5-point favorites against one of the worst teams in college football and departed with a 42-7 victory.

What was surprising (heck, shocking) was what happened a few moments before the Gophers kicked off. Illinois’ James McCourt made a 39-yard field goal as time expired to give the Illini a 24-23 victory over the sixth-ranked Wisconsin Badgers. That was Wisconsin’s first loss of the season and by late Saturday afternoon put the Gophers alone in first place in the Big Ten West.

The Gophers are 7-0 overall and 4-0 in the Big Ten — the Badgers are 6-1 and 3-1 — and Minnesota should improve to 8-0 overall and 4-0 next Saturday against Maryland at TCF Bank Stadium. So here’s the question: What are we to make of the Gophers’ success and is this going to have a happy ending or a Gophers ending? The latter meaning “I can’t believe that happened, but I’m not completely shocked because, well, it’s the Gophers,” finish.

As someone who has watched this program since 1978 and seen many disappointments, my best advice is to enjoy this success and hold on tight. There will be four games remaining on the Gophers’ schedule following Maryland, including vs. No. 7 Penn State; at No. 23 Iowa; at Northwestern; and vs. No. 6 Wisconsin.

After Rodney Smith ran for 111 yards and two touchdowns and Tanner Morgan threw for two touchdowns on Saturday, the Gophers are 7-0 for the first time since winning a national championship in 1960. The Gophers have won nine consecutive games over two seasons, their longest winning streak since 1941-42.

There have been a few occasions before where the Gophers got on a roll and we believed the best was yet to come. This time, though, there is a legitimate path to a Big Ten West title with an offense that has the ability to pass and run the ball and a defense that is definitely not a sieve. (Let’s not talk about the potential of playing Ohio State in the conference title game.)

Those who are doubting these Gophers can be forgiven. History has not been kind to this program and coach P.J. Fleck’s team nearly lost all three of its nonconference games against South Dakota State, Fresno State and Georgia Southern. But a seven-point victory over Purdue in the Big Ten opener was followed by a 23-point victory over Illinois, a 27-point victory over Nebraska and a 35-point victory over Rutgers. See a trend there?

Morgan might not be dynamic but he doesn’t make the type of mistakes that will cost you a game and he has a trio of wide receivers (Rashod Bateman, Tyler Johnson and Chris Autman-Bell) that are three of the best in the conference and catch nearly everything thrown their way. The Gophers also are deep at the running back position and Fleck and offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca are more than willing to establish the ground game and then go to the aerial attack.

Illinois, Nebraska and Rutgers had zero chance against the Gophers. (Think about that for a second. The Nebraska Cornhuskers had no chance against the Minnesota Gophers.) But to the Gophers credit, they aren’t making the same mistake that Wisconsin clearly did at Illinois and that would be taking an opponent too lightly. The guess here is the Gophers also won’t make that mistake next Saturday against Maryland.

That should set up a four-game stretch in which we will find out if this is finally a Gophers team that belongs playing for a Big Ten championship. Are Gophes fans going to end up being disappointed? Perhaps, but at least it will be interesting.


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