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Zulgad: What might have been? Win over Badgers is cause for celebration and reflection

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Minnesota
Nov 27, 2021; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Gophers players and fans celebrate after winning the game against the Wisconsin Badgers at Huntington Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

For many in the crowd of 49,736 at Huntington Bank Stadium on Saturday, there was no debate on how they would spend the moments after the Gophers’ 23-13 victory over the Wisconsin Badgers. The Gophers hadn’t beaten the Badgers at home since Nov. 8, 2003, meaning the majority of students who rushed onto the field had no idea what it felt or looked like to beat the Badgers in Minneapolis until the clock hit triple zeroes at 6:41 p.m.

This was a moment to be celebrated. It’s not often that Paul Bunyan’s Axe spends extended time on the University of Minnesota campus and the fact that spectators of all ages covered the turf served as proof of this. The Gophers had beaten the Badgers as recently as 2018 in Madison, but that was followed by consecutive defeats, meaning the Axe called Wisconsin home for 16 of the past 17 years.

But as joyous of occasion as this might have been, especially since the defeat cost the Badgers a trip to the Big Ten championship game against Michigan next Saturday, you also had to wonder what was going through the minds of the Gophers’ veteran followers? Not the students. They have the advantage of youth and their optimism allows them the benefit of assuming the Gophers’ past failures won’t follow them.

But for those of us who know better, and know just how difficult real success has been to achieve for this program, it was impossible not to reflect on how close the Gophers came to winning the Big Ten West title and a trip to the conference championship game in Indianapolis.

There were three things that had to happen this weekend for the Gophers to have a chance to go where they had never been before. The first was Nebraska beating visiting Iowa on Friday. A Gophers win over Wisconsin and a Purdue win over Indiana would have left Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and Purdue with 6-3 records in the conference and the four-way tie would have sent Minnesota to Indy.

It appeared the Cornhuskers were going to do Minnesota a tremendous favor as they held a 15-point lead in the third quarter, but the 16th-ranked Hawkeyes rallied for a 28-21 victory. Nebraska’s self-destruction included a blocked punt that Iowa returned for a touchdown and it also gave up a safety as a 21-6 lead became a 21-21 tie with 7 minutes, 21 seconds remaining.

This created the rare situation in which Iowa fans spent Saturday cheering for the Gophers because Wisconsin had beaten the Hawkeyes on Oct. 30, meaning the head-to-head tie-breaker would have come into play.

Of course, the Gophers wouldn’t have needed Nebraska’s help if they could have won two more Big Ten games and finished 8-1. There are many seasons in which this suggestion would have seemed absurd but this wasn’t one of them. Minnesota opened the season with a home loss to Ohio State, but winning its remaining conference games in the weak Big Ten West was doable.

The Gophers won four consecutive Big Ten games before an inexplicable 14-6 loss to visiting Illinois in which Minnesota’s offense went missing. That was followed by a five-point defeat at Iowa in which the Gophers dominated in almost every area but on the scoreboard.

Win those two games and fans wouldn’t have been rushing the field on Saturday just to celebrate a rare win over Wisconsin, they would have been doing it to acknowledge a Big Ten West championship and the possibility of a berth in the Rose Bowl. Don’t suffer a brutal nonconference loss at home to Bowling Green and we might have been talking College Football Playoff for P.J. Fleck’s club.

Instead, the Gophers are likely headed to the Las Vegas or Outback Bowl. The first would feature a Pac-12 opponent on Dec. 30, the second an SEC foe on Jan. 1 in Tampa, Fla. The Gophers completed their 11-2 season in 2019 with an impressive win over Auburn in the Outback. Minnesota did not end that season in possession of the Axe after a home loss to the Badgers cost them the Big Ten West title.

A loss to their arch-rival won’t be something the Gophers are forced to reflect upon this offseason. Nonetheless, it will difficult to ignore some of the other missed opportunities from a season that had the potential to be truly magical.