The fans in maroon and gold sweatshirts at the team hotel meant well, but Tracy Claeys sensed their doubts.
He and the other Gophers football coaches had awoken that cool morning, last Oct. 26, feeling certain their game plan for Nebraska could work. Players were equally confident at the team breakfast and welcomed everyone’s well wishes as they assembled for the short bus ride to campus.
“There are some good people, good fans out there,” Claeys said the next day. “But they’ll say, ‘Boy, you’ve got a tough one today.’ Everywhere the players go, that’s all they hear.”
Claeys, the day’s acting head coach, wasn’t faulting anyone. Oddsmakers had pegged the Gophers as 10-point underdogs, and given their history, it was fair to wonder if this would be that close. Minnesota was 0-16 against Nebraska since 1960, had lost those games by an average of 31.5 points, and hadn’t even held a lead against the Cornhuskers since 1969.
But this day would be different. By game’s end, attitudes would change. The Gophers could feel it on the bus, as they followed their police escort to TCF Bank Stadium. For four quarters, they would reshape a rivalry, re-establish beliefs and legitimize a rebuilding effort.
They essentially dominated the game’s final 50 minutes and then celebrated in a sea of fans a 34-23 victory that will stand as the first signature victory of the Jerry Kill Era. It was arguably the biggest win for the Gophers since they broke into the Big House in 2005 and beat Michigan.
Now, as a new season begins this week, the Gophers can scan their schedule and aspire to make more magical moments. Maybe they’ll pull off another win at Michigan (Sept. 26). Maybe they’ll stun a beat-up Ohio State team in Minneapolis (Nov. 15). Maybe they’ll reclaim Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the first time in 11 years when they play at Wisconsin (Nov. 29).
The possibilities are one reason why people love college football. Teams across the nation are dreaming of days like the Gophers had against Nebraska — when a game plan comes together perfectly, when players stretch themselves beyond their supposed limits, when a team’s own expectations are finally met, and yes, when legions of doubters end up storming the field.
At 10:40 a.m., 20 minutes before kickoff, Kill pulled the Gophers together inside their vast locker room for a quick pep talk.
He wore a maroon pullover, with a purple ribbon pinned at the crest for the Gophers second annual Epilepsy Awareness Game. Three weeks earlier, a seizure had kept Kill from making the trip to Michigan, forcing him to miss a full game for the first time in his 30-year coaching career.
Kill had taken a two-week leave to treat his epilepsy and then surprised players by showing up for their upset victory at Northwestern. He spent the Nebraska game in the press box, while Claeys served as acting coach on the sideline.
But behind the scenes, Kill had remained the team’s inspirational leader. Like usual, his players took a knee to hear this speech.
“Life is about one day a time; ain’t nothing guaranteed,” Kill told them. “So when you get done today, just know you did your best.”
A turning point
Sunshine covered the five-year-old stadium, which would fill with a near-capacity crowd of 49,995. The Gophers came through their tunnel wearing maroon jerseys and gold pants, and Nebraska wore its classic road attire — white jerseys, red pants and those famous white helmets with the red “N.”
Nebraska was 5-1, having reeled off three easy wins since a disappointing meltdown against UCLA. Senior quarterback Taylor Martinez was back from a foot injury. He and the Cornhuskers had throttled the Gophers 38-14 one year earlier in Lincoln, and this started ominously for Minnesota, too.
Martinez lofted a 42-yard pass to Kenny Bell, setting up a quick touchdown, and drove the Cornhuskers to Minnesota’s 17-yard-line on the second drive. The student section was still rubbing sleep from its eyes, and Nebraska was poised to take a two-touchdown lead.
The game’s turning point came right there, on third down. Martinez went back to pass, looking left, and sophomore defensive end Theiren Cockran came speeding in untouched from his right. Cockran’s hit buckled Martinez, jarring the ball loose. Nebraska recovered but had to settle for a field goal and a 10-0 lead.
Claeys was chomping his gum on the sidelines, confident the defense would make things tough the rest of the day. He’d already spoken with sophomore cornerback Eric Murray, who had been burned by Bell on the opening-drive bomb.
“I asked Eric, ‘Can you handle him?’ ” Claeys said this summer. “And he just said, ‘Coach, don’t worry about it. He won’t catch another one.’ ”
Bell, one of Nebraska’s all-time leading receivers, actually caught two more passes — for a combined 3 yards.
Play of the game
If every big win has a signature moment, this one came midway through the second quarter, with the Gophers holding the ball at Nebraska’s 33-yard line, facing fourth-and-10 and trailing 10-7. It would have been a 50-yard field goal attempt for Chris Hawthorne, so Claeys went for it. Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover called the play from the press box, sitting a few feet from Kill.
“As soon as the play was called, I knew it was meant for a touchdown, not a first down,” Derrick Engel said. “We had talked in practice about that exact situation.”
Engel, a senior wide receiver, lined up in the left slot. Freshman safety Nate Gerry, a converted linebacker, went to cover Engel, shading him to the inside of the field, taking away the quick slant.
The Cornhuskers seemed determined to prevent a 10- or 15-yard gain, but they left themselves vulnerable to a deep pass. It was a calculated gamble against a Gophers offense that didn’t hit many deep passes all year.
Just like the Gophers had practiced, Engel ran straight at Gerry but then darted toward the end zone. Gerry was toast, and when quarterback Philip Nelson released the pass, another safety was late coming over to help.
“At first I thought it would sail over my head,” Engel said. “I don’t know if it was into the wind, but it kind of died a little bit.”
Engel jumped and stretched his arms, somehow reeling in a fingertip touchdown grab.
“It was a great throw and I was kind of lucky,” Engel said. “I think if you look at that picture, you can see my eyes closed.”
How they won
Limegrover has a frame hanging prominently above his office desk with pictures from the Nebraska victory, including a big celebration shot, with fans rushing the field.
Later in the season, facing better defenses, the Gophers went 13 consecutive quarters without an offensive touchdown. But before that long, agonizing stretch, the offense had propelled the team on its first four-game Big Ten winning streak since 1973.
ESPN sideline reporter Tom Luginbill likened the Gophers’ offensive strategy against Nebraska to the inventive one Boise State used to fell Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl.
The Gophers lined up in whole new formations, and constantly had players in motion. At one point offensive tackle Ben Lauer split out as a wide receiver and held up his hands like he might actually catch a pass, but Nelson turned and found tight end Drew Goodger wide open for a 21-yard gain.
Limegrover unveiled a new “jet sweep” package, with Donovahn Jones and other receivers going in motion, taking a handoff or getting a fake.
Jones had carries of 13, 11 and 20 yards. Nebraska’s defenders started cheating a step toward Jones, respecting his speed. So even when the Gophers faked it to him, it opened bigger holes for David Cobb, who carried 31 times for 138 yards.
“I hate to pick open old wounds, but we watched the  Big Ten Championship Game a lot,” Limegrover said, referencing Nebraska’s 70-31 loss to Wisconsin 10 months earlier.
Nebraska pulled within four points, but with 48 seconds left, Nelson sealed the victory with his second rushing touchdown.
The magnitude of the win hit Engel during the on-field celebration. He had dropped a key pass early in the fourth quarter, as the Gophers were trying to run out the clock and had to sweat through the final minutes.
“I was kind of bitter at myself for that [drop]; that’s me being a perfectionist,” Engel said. “But all the fans were coming up to me — saying, ‘Great catch! Play of the day!’ — asking for my autograph. They really pumped me up.”
Fallout in Lincoln
The Nebraska media, which obsess over the Cornhuskers 52 weeks per year, had sharp criticisms for their coaches.
With Martinez clearly limited at quarterback — this would be his final college game because of a severe foot injury — why hadn’t they relied heavily on Ameer Abdullah, who rushed 19 times for 165 yards, an average of 8.7 yards per carry?
Offensive coordinator Tim Beck said it was because the Gophers had lined up in man-to-man coverage all game, daring Martinez to look for Bell and Quincy Enunwa.
Beyond the X’s and O’s, there was something else Nebraska fans never expected to hear.
“I thought they out-physicaled us,” head coach Bo Pelini said.
In the Omaha World-Herald, columnist Dirk Chatelain wrote: “If I had put Nebraska and Minnesota in shirts and skins, you wouldn’t have known which one has decades of tradition and which one doesn’t. Match up the same teams next Saturday and there’s no reason to think the same thing wouldn’t happen. The Gophers were better. More intelligent. More disciplined. More focused. More intense. Better.”
The ripple effect
This summer, Gophers coaches were reluctant to say too much about the Nebraska win. Sure, it was big for the program, but they didn’t want to beat their chests as if they’d won the Rose Bowl.
They also know they’ll be playing Nebraska every year in the Big Ten West, including this Nov. 22 in Lincoln, so perhaps the less said the better.
Gophers recruiting coordinator Billy Glasscock acknowledged that the victory has helped open doors.
“It’s a signature win, and what it does is it makes you relevant, to be honest with you,” he said. “It gives you street cred, really. You talk about building a program and what Coach Kill has done at other programs, but it gives you credibility.”
Since most top 2014 recruits had made commitments by last October, the real impact of wins over Nebraska and Penn State could come years down the line, Glasscock said.
In a competitive Twin Cities sports market, the Gophers did enjoy an immediate spike in relevance last year.
“Hard-core fans — our true, passionate fans — are always talking about this stuff,” Gophers senior associate athletics director Chris Werle said. “But when something happens like a Nebraska win — that’s unexpected, that’s exciting, that ends a drought — now they have something to tell casual fans about.
“Instead of our score being up on ESPN, we got 40 seconds worth of highlights. The local news stations made it their lead — that never happens for Gophers football. So now it’s what everybody’s talking about for a few days.”
Gophers season ticket sales are up. As of Friday, the team had sold 33,028 season tickets, compared to 31,315 on that date last year. The athletics department is trying to raise money for a proposed $190 million complex that would benefit several Gophers sports. The football team’s return to relevancy last fall surely helps.
Werle said he never wants to condone fans rushing onto the field, but he realizes that at those moments everyone wants to feel a part of it.
“That’s what beating Nebraska gets you — that shared ‘We were all there.’ In a few years I’m guessing probably 70,000 people will say they were at that game, and we only hold 50,000.”
But the Gophers won some big games under former coach Glen Mason, too. His teams stunned No. 2-ranked Penn State in 1999 and No. 6-ranked Ohio State the next year but could never seem to get over this next hump.
Other teams have experienced bigger springboard effects. Michigan State, for example, was a middling program in 2007, sitting at 45-51 in the new millennium. Its rivalry with Michigan was so one-sided, running back Mike Hart compared playing Michigan State to playing “your little brother.”
But in 2008, Michigan State won its first game in Ann Arbor since 1990. Since that game, the Spartans are 50-21, including 4-1 against “Big Brother.”
The Gophers have their own sibling rivalries. Oct. 26, 2013, showed they won’t be pushed around by anyone.