A group of Gophers football alumni returned to campus for the spring game in April. They shared laughs and stories and memories of their time together until, inevitably, the conversation turned to a familiar topic.
“The conversation always ends with the Michigan game,” former quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq said.
Ten years later, the events of that Friday night inside a sold-out and rowdy Metrodome still resonate with Gophers players, coaches and fans. The program and its followers went from unbridled ecstasy to unrelenting agony in a span of one unforgettable fourth-quarter meltdown.
That 38-35 loss left such an indelible mark on Gophers football that several players believe the program would look dramatically different today had the Gophers not squandered a 21-point lead in the fourth quarter by allowing Michigan to score 31 points.
Many of those involved say they still think about what happened that night, as the 100th meeting in the rivalry takes place Saturday in Ann Arbor.
“All the time,” former tight end Ben Utecht said. “I don’t know if I choose to think about it. It’s more of a nightmare than anything else.”
Undefeated and ranked 17th at the time, the Gophers pummeled No. 20 Michigan for three quarters, legitimizing the belief that their program was primed to reach new heights under coach Glen Mason. A victory would have improved the Gophers’ record to 7-0, possibly moved them into the top 10 nationally and injected the program — and its fan base — with the kind of confidence and momentum that had been absent for decades.
“If we win that game, the program is 100 percent different, no doubt about it,” said former quarterback Bryan Cupito, a freshman in ’03. “If we win that game, I would say the next five years of Minnesota football is completely different. I think that would have changed things in a big way.”
How much so is pure speculation, but with a manageable closing schedule, it’s not unrealistic to think that a victory would have propelled the Gophers into the Rose Bowl and possibly even the national championship picture.
Instead, they looked like zombies in a loss to No. 15 Michigan State the following week, losing 44-38, and finished the season 10-3 after defeating Oregon in the Sun Bowl, giving the program its first 10-victory season since 1905.
And yet …
“I really think that if we win that game, we end up at least 12-1,” Utecht said. “I think what happens then is ‘Mase’ goes out and probably has two to three really solid recruiting years where he keeps Minnesota kids and brings in some of those who were maybe walking the fence. The next thing you know, maybe we’ve got three BCS [bowl games in a row] and this becomes a whole different conversation.”
Instead, the Gophers absorbed the kind of heartbreak that defined Mason’s career as much as his rebuilding job. Mason inherited a conference bottom-feeder and turned it into a respectable operation that made annual trips to bowl games and set NCAA rushing records. His teams were typically solid, occasionally quite good, but gut-wrenching losses prevented the Gophers from becoming a consistent Big Ten challenger.
The Gophers never finished higher than fourth place in the conference or played in a New Year’s Day game under Mason. His 10-year tenure looks better in retrospect, considering the struggles the program has endured since his firing following the 2006 season. His résumé included a few milestone upsets, notably at No. 2 Penn State in 1999, at No. 6 Ohio State in 2000 and at Michigan in 2005.
Understandably, Mason prefers to look at the totality of his tenure rather than the sting of one loss or dissect all the “what-might-have-been” scenarios.
“You’re assuming we would have beat Michigan State the next week,” he said. “I don’t know.”