MADISON, WIS. – P.J. Fleck’s program grew up Saturday. His team played big-boy football. Tough, physical, confident, opportunistic football.
The Gophers stormed into a house of horrors and left with a bowl game ticket and a rivalry trophy missing for so long that it had become merely a rumor.
Gophers 37, Wisconsin 15.
Enjoy it, Gophers fans. That’s not a misprint.
No fluke, either. The Gophers dominated their rival in a manner that left no doubt about which one was the better team at Camp Randall Stadium.
“What a game,” Fleck said.
More than a game, this marked a pivotal moment for Fleck’s program, and not just because the Gophers became bowl eligible, though that certainly represents a tangible sign of progress in Year 2.
It was the kind of statement victory that makes believers of skeptics. The kind of win that should jumpstart woeful attendance. The kind of win that gives credibility to Fleck’s unabashed positivity and insistence that better days are coming.
Yes, the Badgers underachieved this season, but don’t attach an asterisk to the 128th meeting between border rivals. The Gophers ended their 14-game drought because they were better prepared and took the fight to their opponent.
The Gophers didn’t wait until the clock hit 00:00 before making a mad dash to grab Paul Bunyan’s Axe. They bolted from their sideline with 30 seconds left, a thundering herd looking to claim their precious reward.
“I know this a moment and memory they’ll remember the rest of their life,” Fleck said.
The Gophers delivered one of their most impressive and complete Big Ten performances in a long time. The offense gave the Badgers a taste of their own medicine by punishing them on the ground, fueled by Mohamed Ibrahim, who runs with a heart the size of Montana.
The defense produced four turnovers in overcoming the loss of their best player, linebacker Blake Cashman, ejected in the second quarter on a targeting penalty. The Gophers held Wisconsin to its lowest point total in the series since 1990 when the Badgers scored three points.
Afterward, Fleck announced that he was removing the interim tag from defensive coordinator Joe Rossi’s title, a promotion that seemed like a formality considering the defense’s remarkable transformation under Rossi the final three games after Fleck fired Robb Smith.
And the special teams contributed the biggest play of the game on Demetrius Douglas’ 69-yard punt return for a touchdown that extended their lead to 17-0.
Offense, defense, special teams … The Gophers couldn’t have scripted it any better.
Even when things went wrong, they had a positive response to prevent the game from swinging in Wisconsin’s favor.
The Gophers held Wisconsin in check on the opening series of the second half after the Badgers scored with one second remaining before halftime to cut the deficit to 17-7. That felt like a turning point.
Another one came after Emmit Carpenter’s field goal pushed the lead to 20-7 in the third quarter. On the kickoff return, the Badgers fumbled the ball deep in their own territory. Minnesota’s Justus Harris tried to scoop and score. Instead, he bobbled the ball and the Badgers recovered to maintain possession.
A missed opportunity, but the defense extinguished any flicker of hope when Julian Huff — Cashman’s replacement — intercepted a pass on that series.
The entire game went that way. One impactful play after the next, methodical and unrelenting.
“We treated it all week like a playoff,” Fleck said.
The stakes weren’t that high. The Gophers needed a win to reach 6-6 and extend their season with a bowl game. The significance goes deeper than that.
Fleck’s program needed a signature victory to establish momentum and legitimacy. This slingshots them into the offseason with a positive vibe. The narrative changes, too. People will talk about Gophers football with excitement and optimism now, not derision.
The emotional release was something to behold. The Gophers couldn’t contain themselves those final 30 seconds. Fourteen years of disappointment and heartache sent them storming off their sideline in a volcanic eruption of joy.
They earned it.