Matt Spaeth reserved hotel rooms in Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship Game way back in August. Before the college football season.
He believed that much in a Gophers football team picked to finish sixth in the Big Ten West.
“I, for one, am not surprised,” said Spaeth, a former All-America tight end.
Not surprised that the Gophers are in position to reach Indy, to return to Pasadena and possibly, remarkably, accomplish even more.
Any Gophers vs. Wisconsin game carries significance. Border battles always do. But the 129th battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe, whew, buckle up.
THE GOPHERS ARE PLAYING THEIR MOST IMPORTANT GAME IN FOREVER ON SATURDAY!
OK, yes, that’s hyperbole. But forget Minnesota Nice modesty. This is an all-caps moment for a football program and fan base not used to all-caps moments.
Don’t take our word for it. Listen to former players, guys who still have vested interest in the program. This moment is about them, too.
“So many of us that came before had hopes and dreams of seasons like this,” Spaeth said. “We are living through this team.”
Former linebacker Pete Najarian: “We have shifted from a program competing to a program reaching for much higher goals.”
Former running back Laurence Maroney: “A chance to go to the Big Ten Championship is what we play for, to be the top team in the Big Ten. We play not just to be good but to be great. To leave our footprints in history.”
Perhaps it is hyperbole to label this Axe clash the most important game in program history, but the Gophers haven’t played in the Rose Bowl since 1962, so this represents the biggest moment since the glory days of Murray Warmath, Sandy Stephens, Bobby Bell, et al.
Dangling in front of their nose is the Big Ten West title, an appearance in the Big Ten title game and a Rose Bowl berth, at a minimum. At 10-1, the Gophers are still being mentioned in the College Football Playoff conversation.
So, yeah, Saturday measures on a football Richter scale.
“Everybody wants to play in games that carry weight,” quarterback Tanner Morgan said.
This is what generations of fans have been waiting for as well, their patience and loyalty tested through decades of heartbreak, incompetence or mediocrity. The Gophers have walked up to this line before, but never, in their modern history, have they seized a moment of this magnitude.
Coach P.J. Fleck tried to contain the boiling water this week by saying one game won’t “define” his team, but he also described this game as “epic.”
It is epic. Look at the stakes, the national spotlight with ESPN’s “College GameDay” in town, the way the Gophers have captured the attention of a pro sports market and become relevant. It’s impossible to overstate what this opportunity means.
Their blueprint for winning isn’t a mystery.
On offense, the Gophers must be themselves. Show balance between run and pass but take advantage of individual matchups. Their offense features three stars in running back Rodney Smith and receivers Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman. It’s difficult for opponents to handle all three. Morgan has been masterful in keeping defenses guessing on run-pass option plays.
Defensively, the task is straightforward: Limit Wisconsin tailback Jonathan Taylor, the nation’s second-leading rusher at 153 yards per game. The Badgers lead the nation in time of possession because they like to pound the ball and wear defenses down. Familiar formula.
Taylor is dynamic. He’s averaged 194 yards rushing in 11 career November games. The front seven of the Gophers defense faces its toughest challenge of the season.
Special teams hiccups have been a recurring theme this season. The Gophers can’t afford more. Crummy weather could play a significant role in all phases, but particularly special teams.
Fleck has used “pressure” as a central theme this month. Pressure is earned and a good thing, he says. Means a team is doing something right.
“We haven’t had that moment in a long time here,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean they aren’t ready for that moment.”
His team has earned this moment, the most important moment for Gophers football in half-century. A chance to leave their own footprints in history.