The Gophers might have their first four-game Big Ten football winning streak since 1973, but they still need work on their celebrations.
After Saturday’s 24-10 victory over Penn State, Gophers players sprinted across the field to claim the Governor’s Victory Bell, and pretty soon, the wooden part of the traveling trophy came apart.
Forgive the Gophers (8-2, 4-2 in the Big Ten). They still are getting used to this success. Not only had they not claimed the bell since 2004, they also hadn’t experienced the thrill of an eight-victory season since they went 10-3 under Glen Mason in 2003.
In fact, this is only their fourth eight-win season in the past 46 years.
“I always said our biggest goal was to make sure we could get all the people in the state of Minnesota to feel good about the direction we’re going,” said Gophers coach Jerry Kill, who danced with the players in the locker room after the game. “We’ve still got a lot of room to get better, and we’ve got a young team, but we’re moving forward.”
The Gophers took another step against Penn State (5-4, 2-3), building a 24-10 lead by halftime and then holding on tight through a scoreless second half. The victory was pretty much sealed when Penn State freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg fumbled at the Gophers 1-yard line with 6:40 remaining.
Philip Nelson rushed for one touchdown and passed for another, David Cobb rushed 27 times for 139 yards and the Gophers rode a big performance from their defense.
“Give Minnesota a lot of credit,” Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said. “They do a great job. They deserve to be 8-2.”
The Gophers used the same formula it did in victories over Northwestern, Nebraska and Indiana, holding the ball for 35 minutes, 28 seconds compared to 24:32 for Penn State. They have held the ball for at least 10 minutes more than their opponents in each game of this winning streak.
“David Cobb might be our best defensive player, if he keeps running the ball like that,” Gophers defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said. “Coach [Kill] will tell you all the time, that there’s no better defense than the one standing on the boundary watching the game.”
Penn State backup running back Zach Zwinak carried 26 times for 150 yards, but the Gophers held Hackenberg, the Big Ten’s leading passer, to 163 yards. And by constantly double-teaming Allen Robinson, the nation’s second-leading receiver, they limited him to seven receptions for 63 yards.
The Gophers won the turnover battle again 2-1, giving them a 8-2 edge over their opponents during the four-game winning streak. Nelson hasn’t fumbled or thrown an interception since Sept. 28.
Minnesota also continued to work its magic on fourth down, going for it three times and turning those into three first downs. Two of those — a 24-yard pass from Nelson to Maxx Williams, and an 11-yard pass from Nelson to Donovahn Jones — led to first-half touchdowns.
With a 17-10 lead and 3:11 left in the second quarter, the Gophers appeared content to run out the clock to end the first half. But Cobb took a screen pass from Nelson and raced 26 yards into Penn State territory. On third-and-10 from the Nittany Lions 24-yard line, Nelson found a wide-open Williams in the left corner for another touchdown with 17 seconds left.
The second half was a defensive struggle, highlighted by some exceptional punting by Gophers sophomore Peter Mortell. He had punts that pinned Penn State at the 1-, 2- and 12-yard line.
“There’s really nothing else I can do right after I kick it; the credit should go to our coverage team,” Mortell said. “For our long snapper, Jake Filkins, to go down there and down it at the 1-yard line is unbelievable.”
The whole winning streak has been unbelievable. It hardly seemed possible five weeks ago, when the Gophers limped into their first bye week after losses to Iowa and Michigan. Kill missed the Michigan game because of a seizure and began a leave of absence to focus on his epilepsy treatments.
But the Gophers regrouped and here they are, entering another bye week with a whole new outlook heading into the Nov. 23 game against Wisconsin.
First, they will have to get that Victory Bell fixed to display it in the trophy case. No one thought of that as the players were climbing over themselves, hoisting it toward an announced crowd of 48,123.
“I think we were more worried about keeping [the trophy] together, so we could celebrate with it first,” tight end Maxx Williams said.
Someday, they’ll learn.