The Gophers football program found new life Saturday night. You can hear its heartbeat loud and clear.

Thump thump. Thump thump. Thump thump.

The Gophers stood up and stood tall in delivering a mature performance that felt like a fork in the road. Big game, important moment and they pounced like a tiger stalking prey.

Boy, did they ever.

No tease this time. No collapse. No dud that made you regret ever believing. Nope, none of that.

The Gophers did what good teams do when presented an opportunity to make a statement. They took their opponent behind the woodshed and left zero doubt about how things would turn out.

Gophers 34, Nebraska 7. And the contest was every bit as one-sided as that score indicates.

With temperatures in the 30s and gusty winds turning TCF Bank Stadium into a snow globe, the Gophers improved to 6-0, assured themselves a spot in the Top 25 rankings this week and kept alive a realistic path to 8-0 by the time Penn State visits in early November.

If this represented a crucial test, the Gophers took home an “A.”

“That’s a tough football team in there,” coach P.J. Fleck said of his players celebrating in the locker room.

Nebraska clearly was overrated at the beginning of the season, and the Cornhuskers were without starting quarterback Adrian Martinez because of a knee injury. But don’t attach an asterisk to the outcome. This was as thorough of a win as you’ll find.

The program took a significant step forward at the halfway point of Fleck’s third season.

A bunch of game balls should be awarded to the Gophers seniors. They rose to the moment, a collection of superlative performances on both sides of the ball.

It was Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, Carter Coughlin and Sam Renner, Tyler Johnson and Kamal Martin. Go down the entire list. The seniors led the charge in every way imaginable.

“That senior class has seen a lot,” Fleck said. “We have powerful seniors.”

The offense flexed its power with a no-frills game plan that was a work of throwback art. They ran the ball down the Huskers’ throat. Over and over and over. Mike Zimmer would have loved it.

The defense dodged trouble early with key stops at the right moments and didn’t allow a touchdown until the fourth quarter, one week after keeping Illinois out of the end zone all game.

The Gophers imposed their will with hard-nosed, physical football that broke Nebraska’s spirit. Especially on offense with a running game that now looks relentless.

The Gophers rushed for 220 yards in the first half alone on the strength of their three-headed tailback monster: Smith, Brooks and Mohamed Ibrahim.

The Gophers rotate three running backs worthy of being No. 1 on a depth chart, and each one brings a little bit different flavor.

The trio combined for 322 yards and four touchdowns. They stayed fresh as the Huskers wore down. Tanner Morgan attempted only 13 passes. More than enough.

A running game that effective doesn’t happen without solid blocking, and the Gophers’ massive offensive line finally looked like the road graders that we saw at the end of last season. Those big boys up front cleared holes big enough for semitrucks to pass through in dominating the line of scrimmage.

It took a few games, but the offense has found ideal balance. Teams will have to focus on the running game now that all three backs are healthy. That will create more one-on-one matchups for their wide receivers, which is sweet music to the ears of Johnson, Rashod Bateman and Chris Autman-Bell.

The defense shouldn’t take a back seat in handing out accolades, though. That unit has allowed one touchdown in two weeks. One. Forget about strength of opponent. In today’s college football, that’s remarkable.

They had total control of things, just like their offense. In a big moment, the Gophers brought their best. Nobody needs a history lesson to know that hasn’t always been the case. This team is starting to write its own narrative.

chip.scoggins@startribune.com