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.