Remove the asterisk. Stop talking about an inferior schedule. Nobody can dismiss the Gophers’ historic season with “yeah but …” slights anymore.
Not now. No, sir. Not after what took place on an unforgettable Saturday afternoon in Dinkytown.
The Gophers proved without any shred of doubt that they are 100% legit. P.J. Fleck’s program officially has arrived.
Pushed to the final seconds, with 51,000 fans screaming despite baseball-sized lumps in their throat, the Gophers did something decidedly un-Gophers like. They didn’t crumble. They seized the moment. A moment that will be remembered for decades.
Jordan Howden’s interception in the end zone with 99 seconds left sealed the program’s biggest win in a half-century, 31-26 over No. 4 Penn State to send TCF Bank Stadium into a field-storming house party.
Go crazy, Gophers fans. Enjoy this moment, this team. Dream big.
The Gophers are 9-0 for the first time since 1904 and should move into the top 10. The Rose Bowl suddenly looms as a realistic destination. Largely ignored nationally before Saturday because of their strength of schedule, the Gophers stood up and made people take notice.
This wasn’t an upset. Or a fluke. The better team won.
“What they did was really special,” Fleck said.
What they did was make believers of skeptics, those who attributed an undefeated record to a soft schedule. Just wait until they play a decent team, doubters bellowed.
Presented that opportunity, the Gophers stormed onto the big stage and delivered a no-nonsense performance that revealed their toughness, resilience and surging confidence.
A respectful confidence permeates the entire program. The Gophers seem oblivious to outside perceptions or the historical significance of what they’re accomplishing week by week. Fleck has done a masterful job of creating an environment that enables his players to stay locked into the present and perform at their peak.
These Gophers are different than previous versions. They don’t get flustered when adversity hits. They regroup and respond.
We saw it after Shannon Brooks fumbled and Penn State scored to cut the deficit to 24-19 in the third quarter. It was a vintage “uh-oh” moment. The Gophers answered with a touchdown drive. No fear, mature response.
Same thing in the final minutes. Scarred Minnesota sports fans likely shared the same thought when Penn State got the ball, needing a touchdown to win, after the Gophers had led the entire game. Here we go again, right? Flashbacks of Michigan 2003. More heartbreak.
Not this time. The exact opposite of Michigan ’03 happened. The Gophers finished the deal on Howden’s interception.
“This is what we can become,” Fleck said. “Gotta let go of all [those negative thoughts about] 50 years ago, 40 years ago, 30 years ago, 20 years ago, 10 years. … We’ve got to change at some point.”
The narrative is changing. The program has evolved under Fleck. Everything feels different.
The Gophers matched or exceeded Penn State’s talent level, especially at skill positions. Their game plans were smart and creative.
Tanner Morgan delivered another brilliant performance to outduel Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford. The Nittany Lions secondary had no answer for receiver Rashod Bateman. Or Tyler Johnson, for that matter. Antoine Winfield Jr. proved again that he’s one of the best defensive players in the Big Ten, if not nationally, with two interceptions and 11 tackles.
Their best players set the tone, but the team collectively brought an unmistakable fire that stems from a belief in their preparation and themselves.
“We don’t listen to all of the outside noise,” senior defensive end Carter Coughlin said.
A different noise will surround them now. More national attention is certain. The Gophers deserve to be taken seriously. College football is alive and relevant in the Twin Cities.
The scene inside sold-out TCF Bank Stadium befitted the moment. Easily the best atmosphere in the venue’s history. Gophers fans were electric in creating a feisty home-field advantage. The press box literally shook during key moments.
“Now that’s the standard,” Coughlin said, issuing a challenge to fans.
Not long after he committed to play for the Gophers back in 2015, Coughlin organized a retreat for other Gophers signees at his family’s cabin. They went fishing, took turns wakeboarding and sat around bonfires past midnight. They wore T-shirts with “Empire” on the front and talked about building something special.
“This is 100 percent the moment I envisioned,” Coughlin said.
That moment was both beautiful and a blur. A win over a top-five team, raucous crowd, dramatic ending to remain undefeated and thousands of students and fans streaming onto the field to celebrate. It was as if all of Minnesota fell in love with college football and the Gophers on Saturday.
“I knew it would happen,” Coughlin said.
Nobody was in a rush to leave the field. A moment this special deserved to be savored.