At some point, there will be no more need for historical comparisons regarding Gophers football – at least not those dating back to 2003.
When we say, “The last time the Gophers …” or “In this situation, Minnesota” … the new frame of reference, in the not-too-distant future, might be 2019.
But for now, there is only so much meaningful history. Almost every success or failure a Gophers team has ends up getting compared inevitably to 2003 or some point a half-century (or more) ago.
So when the Gophers raced to an 8-0 start and were staring at a showdown against Penn State, a lot of talk in the lead-up went back to 16 years ago, when Minnesota started 6-0 and led Michigan 28-7 before collapsing in a 38-35 home loss.
Minnesota more than survived that test this season, securing a program-defining 31-26 win over the Nittany Lions. But now that the Gophers have suffered their first defeat this season – 23-19 at Iowa on Saturday, a loss that was more frustrating than alarming – there is another cautionary tale to remember from 2003: learning how to move on quickly from disappointment.
After that loss to Michigan, the Gophers still sat at 6-1 (2-1 in the Big Ten) and had a favorable schedule the rest of the way. Their next game was at home against Michigan State – a good but not great team that season, and one that lost four of its final five games – and the Gophers were six-point favorites.
But the emotional hangover from the loss to the Wolverines was real. Michigan State jumped to a 17-0 lead and led 44-24 in the fourth quarter before a couple of late touchdowns by the Gophers made the final score a more respectable-looking 44-38.
The Gophers did rally to win their next three Big Ten games (including a win over Wisconsin) before closing the conference year with a loss to Iowa. But that Michigan State game pretty much sealed their fate in the Big Ten race and ensured that a potentially great season was merely very good (10-3 and a bowl win counts for that description with this program).
Sixteen years later, the Gophers have a much different opponent ahead of them: Northwestern is 2-8 overall, including 0-7 in the Big Ten. The Gophers are 13.5-point favorites in the latest odds. But this is a Big Ten road game, and the potential for a hangover from Iowa still exists — particularly with Tanner Morgan’s status up in the air.
This doesn’t feel like the kind of Gophers team that will experience such a thing, but then again I thought Minnesota would play much more crisply than it did at Iowa. Whether that was the weight of expectations or just one of those days is up for debate, but Gophers linebacker Thomas Barber described it like this: “We just weren’t mentally prepared for the game.”
A team with realistic Rose Bowl aspirations – win Saturday and win against Wisconsin two weeks from now, and Pasadena becomes the most likely outcome – will need to make sure there are no mental missteps in Evanston.
Very good seasons are nice. But great ones are memorable.