FRESNO, CALIF. – Jorge Reyna just stood there, hands on his hips, while Gophers players flooded the field with their celebration.
The Fresno State quarterback had a man wide open in the end zone in double overtime. He just needed to complete a pass to secure the win against a Power Five team. The ball was right on target.
Then out of nowhere, Antoine Winfield Jr. flew into its path, absconding not just with the ball but the whole game.
For the second consecutive year against Fresno State, Winfield made the game-saving interception in the end zone to secure a Gophers’ win. This one, a 38-35 double-overtime triumph despite a myriad of self-inflicted errors, helped the Gophers to a 2-0 record to start the year.
“It was very sudden,” Winfield said of his reaction play. “I don’t know, it was like déjà vu.”
His teammates called it crazy and big-time. His coach said it was surreal.
“He can track and cover so much ground so quickly, and that’s exactly what he did,” Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said. “And he found a way to jump in front, make the interception.
Prior to that thrilling finish, though, the Gophers struggled. They fumbled the ball five times, losing three and handing Fresno State 15 points off turnovers. Quarterback Tanner Morgan endured four sacks. The team lost 65 yards to seven penalties. For the second consecutive week, the third quarter was a black hole where the Bulldogs shut out the Gophers 11-0, posting 35 more yards and benefiting from a turnover and two penalties.
Fleck said many of these miscues, though, were uncharacteristic from certain players. Sophomore running Mohamed Ibrahim fumbled, as did Morgan. Junior defensive back Justus Harris drifted too far back on his block, causing a muffed punt when he collided with punt returner Demetrius Douglas. Douglas had his own drop as a receiver earlier in the game. Senior defensive end Tai’yon Devers made a blatant facemask penalty after back-to-back Gophers’ sacks that kick-started Fresno State’s comeback after the Gophers jumped to a 14-3 lead.
Fleck listed off many of those errors and more after the game, calling it a physical matchup that either team could have won, but the Gophers were fortunate to take.
“We did not play perfect,” Fleck said. “But they found a way to win in a very hostile environment against, I think, one of the best teams in the country that has played two Power Five teams [the past two weeks] that are pretty good all the way down the last possession.”
After both teams scored touchdowns in the first overtime, the Gophers needed freshman kicker Michael Lantz’s first career field goal, a 37-yard kick to take the lead. Winfield’s interception sealed it.
But before that imperative play, the Gophers made another one with 46 seconds left in regulation. Needing a touchdown to tie, Fleck called a play on fourth-and-13 Morgan to throw the ball to sophomore receiver Chris Autman-Bell in the end zone, since Fresno State double-covered fellow receivers Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman.
Autman-Bell managed to plant his foot before falling out of bounds for his first career touchdown.
The receiver said his eyes went big when he heard the ball was coming to him.
“A couple of days into fall camp, I was down, saying, ‘I’m not getting plays,’” Autman-Bell said. “And Ty and Bate said, ‘Your time is coming.’” … Before the play, they came and said, ‘Yo, your time is coming bro.’ I made the play and it’s just crazy.”