PISCATAWAY, N.J. – Pretty much every Gophers player hugged or helmet tapped or backslapped Casey O'Brien as he walked off the field from his first snap of college football.
But O'Brien sought out one specific embrace on the sideline. He and a teary P.J. Fleck held on to each other for a long while after O'Brien held an extra point in the No. 20 Gophers' 42-7 victory at Rutgers. That might seem like an inconsequential play, but O'Brien and his coach knew what led to that moment.
O'Brien, a four-time survivor of rare bone cancer osteosarcoma, had endured a lot — from a full left knee replacement to multiple lung surgeries and chemotherapy treatments to giving up being a quarterback — all in the pursuit of continuing to play the sport he loves. Fleck was the only college coach to give him that chance as a walk-on. And O'Brien finally proved Saturday he is not just an inspiration. He's a football player.
"The one thing that we've been talking about all year was, 'Is it worth it?' And I just said, 'It was worth it,' " is what O'Brien told his coach during that hug. "Everything that we've been through as a team and everything that I've been through myself with everything at the hospital and going through cancer four times. It was worth it tonight."
Against 1-6 Rutgers, the Gophers improved to 7-0 overall and 4-0 in the conference, feats that haven't occurred since the 1960s, when the program won national championships and Big Ten titles. And with No. 6 Wisconsin losing a shocker to Illinois, the Gophers also took sole possession of first place in the Big Ten West.
Fleck wanted O'Brien to own a piece of that success. He tried to put the sophomore in at home vs. Nebraska a week ago, but the game situation wasn't right. At Rutgers, with his parents in attendance, O'Brien held all three of the Gophers' fourth-quarter extra points, including one bad snap he expertly reset.
"One of most emotional moments I've had as a head football coach," Fleck said. "… I've seen a lot of tragic things in my life. But to have that be one of those things that went from tragic to hope to accomplishment. That's important. That's special."
The game was full of emotions for the Gophers, with O'Brien as the peak. But Fleck and much of his staff also had to confront a return to Rutgers, a program that had shaped their careers through hirings and firings. Fleck told his players before they headed on to the field that Wisconsin had lost, meaning the Gophers were aware a victory could make the path to the Big Ten championship clearer. The team hit a low when senior linebacker Kamal Martin, its best defensive player, left because of a possibly serious leg injury.
But through all of that, the Gophers stayed steady. The defense only gave up a touchdown once Martin exited, but it held the struggling Rutgers offense to only 189 yards. Their own offense overcame a slow start to amass 443 yards, including 100-yard games from receiver Tyler Johnson and running back Rodney Smith. Each side of the ball had standout plays, such as safety Antoine Winfield Jr.'s 33-yard interception return for a score and receiver Rashod Bateman's one-handed scoop with a defender on him.
Quarterback Tanner Morgan might have displayed that even-keeled approach the most. He didn't have his best performance,completing 15 of 28 passes for 245 yards and two touchdowns, and he missed a wide-open Johnson and Bateman on the first two downs before the Gophers' second touchdown. On the third try, Morgan and Bateman ran the same play they just missed on, and this time they connected for a score.
"There's a couple — a lot — of inaccurate throws, so I've got to be better with that, and I think that's where it starts," Morgan said.
While the game might not have been perfect, the outcome was nearly sublime. A big victory; a still-undefeated run; and a memory that transcends it all.
"I always thought that I could do it," O'Brien said. "But I got to show the world that I can do it."
He was talking about his personal achievement of persevering through life-threatening disease to play Division I football. But he also encapsulated the Gophers' season so far.