MINNEAPOLIS — The air of anticipation among the 51,883 in TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday afternoon had turned to one of nervousness (nearing resignation) as Penn State’s Jahan Dotson took Sean Clifford’s pass 49 yards to the Gophers 11 yard line with 1 minute, 56 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter and Minnesota clinging to a five-point lead.
So this was how the latest Gophers football and Minnesota sports heartbreak was going to happen, huh? The 17th-ranked Gophers had led No. 4 Penn State by as many as 14 in the second quarter but, as usual, that seemed too good to be true and now the Nittany Lions were going to rally for two fourth-quarter touchdowns and the win.
Only that never happened. Instead, an offensive pass interference penalty on Penn State negated an 8-yard gain that would have put the ball at the Minnesota 2-yard line. Clifford threw an incompletion on second-and-24 from the Gophers 25, and then had his third-down pass picked off in the end zone by Jordan Howden with just over a minute left.
The Gophers ran two plays to kill the clock before fans, both young and old, streamed onto the field to celebrate a 31-26 victory, the biggest win for the program in 50-plus years. A sea of humanity on the field — and many more who remained in the stands — rejoiced about the fact that this time the Gophers hadn’t blown it. This wasn’t going to be a repeat of the fourth-quarter meltdown in 2003 against Michigan or so many other moments in which certain victory disappeared. The Gophers (9-0 overall, 6-0 Big Ten) remained perfect, while Penn State (8-1, 5-1) lost its first game of the season.
Gophers coach P.J. Fleck, who agreed to a seven-year contract extension last week, was one of the few who expressed no surprise that his team overcame late adversity. Fleck doesn’t seem to care that the script for his football team has so often called for a collapse.
“This is what we can become,” Fleck said. “I’m sure there were some people who on the final drive (by Penn State) said, ‘Here we go again.’ We’ve got to let go of all of that. Fifty years ago, 40 years ago, 30 years ago, 20 years ago, 10 years ago. We’ve got to change at some point. I think this team has proven that as we continue to go into the future we don’t have to keep saying things like that. Does that mean you’re going to win them all? No. It doesn’t mean that. But they’re doing a lot of special things that you can keep building on.”
Fleck has done plenty of building in his three years at Minnesota and Saturday was another step in that process. It was an impressive one. With three games left in the regular season, the Gophers appear headed to the conference title game as the Big Ten West champion. They will play at Iowa and Northwestern the next two Saturdays and then play host to Wisconsin. The 13th-ranked Badgers beat the eighth-ranked Hawkeyes, 24-22, on Saturday, leaving the Badgers two games behind Minnesota and Iowa three games behind.
The knock on the Gophers entering Saturday was that they hadn’t beaten any quality teams in the Big Ten. The comeback to that was Minnesota had beaten Purdue, Illinois, Nebraska, Rutgers and Maryland by an average of 26.8 points. That’s not barely getting past those teams, that’s annihilating them.
But if the college football world thought the Gophers were nothing more than a pretender — and the fact they were ranked behind Wisconsin (13th) and Michigan (14th) in the initial college football playoff rankings served as an indication that that was the case — they got a surprise on Saturday, as did the Nittany Lions.
This was no fluke either. Quarterback Tanner Morgan completed 18 of 20 passes for 339 yards and three touchdowns; wide receivers Rashod Bateman and Tyler Johnson combined for 14 catches for 307 yards and two touchdowns; safety Antoine Winfield intercepted two passes; and the Gophers held Penn State to 2-for-6 in the red zone. This Gophers team isn’t only filled with talent, it also has taken on Fleck’s high-energy personality and isn’t afraid to come out swinging when faced with adversity.
Fleck’s team was playing so well that the game was announced as a sellout on Friday and the place was electric for four quarters on Saturday. The student sections were filled and a place that has had far too often been empty now had a big-time college atmosphere.
When the college football playoff rankings come out Monday, the committee should drop Penn State behind Minnesota and move the Gophers past Wisconsin and Michigan. Are the Gophers in the discussion for the college football playoff? Technically, yes, but no one should complain if the Gophers lose to Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game and end up playing in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1. That is very realistic at this point and would be the Gophers’ first appearance in Pasadena, Calif., since the 1961 season.
All of this will play out in the coming weeks. Saturday was about enjoying a victory that few predicted and that resulted in the type of joy that many Gophers football fans might have thought they would never get a chance to express.
“That’s why you take a job,” Fleck said when asked whether he had envisioned seeing Gophers fans storm the field to celebrate a win. “I remember taking the job here and before we took the job (Fleck’s wife, Heather) looked at me and said, ‘Are you sure you want to do another year one?’ At the time there was a lot of chaos going on here and there was a boycott and all of those other things. You’re like, ‘Do I really want to run into that fire?’
“Because there’s a certain amount of wins, yeah, and everybody is going to have that perception, but then there’s this also divide and that was the whole vision to be able to have that field swarmed (after beating) a top-five team in the country and to put us undefeated. When everybody told me, ‘Don’t take the job, don’t take the job,’ my life is usually about (being told), ‘Don’t do that, don’t do that,’ (then me saying), ‘OK, I’ll do that and that sounds like a good job for me.’ That was the vision. Now there’s a lot more we want to accomplish, that’s not the end all, be all, but what I do want to do is raise the expectation of the University of Minnesota.”
Saturday took a definite step in that direction.