Have you recovered yet from the rigors of watching two of the most dramatic big Minnesota football games in recent memory, played on back-to-back days?
I can’t remember the Gophers and Vikings winning in such a way in such meaningful games on the same weekend in a very long time. Gophers 31, Penn State 26. Vikings 28, Dallas 24. I have to imagine it’s going to be a skyway full of smiles today.
In thinking about both last night, this struck me: The endings and outcomes were so similar that it makes sense now to think about them in tandem. So let’s take a spin through the final game-turning defensive stops in both games.
Gophers: The undefeated Gophers were trying to knock off similarly undefeated and favored Penn State for a signature win. After jumping out to a 14-point first half lead (24-10), things tightened considerably in the second half. A late touchdown brought Penn State within 31-26, and a fumble gave the Lions the ball near midfield. From there, Penn State drove with relative ease to Minnesota’s 11 and looked poised to score the go-ahead touchdown in the closing moments.
Vikings: Prime time games on the road against teams with winning records are not exactly easy for anyone, but they’ve been particularly harsh for the Vikings and QB Kirk Cousins. And after jumping out to a 14-point first half lead (14-0) against favored Dallas, things were tight in the second half. Minnesota still led 28-24, but a punt gave Dallas the ball with 4:34 left and a chance to take the lead. The Cowboys moved the ball with ease, getting to the Vikings’ 11 without even needing to convert so much as a third down, and looked poised to score the go-ahead touchdown.
Gophers: On 2nd-and-9 from the Gophers’ 10, Penn State appeared to have an 8-yard completion to Minnesota’s 2. But instead of third and short, the play was flagged for offensive pass interference, moving the Lions all the way back to the 25. It was the kind of call that would have had Gophers fans howling had it happened to them.
Vikings: On 2nd-and-2 from the Vikings’ 11, Dallas decided to try a run play with Ezekiel Elliott even though he’d been bottled up all day and even though Dak Prescott — often with tons of time to throw — was shredding the Vikings’ defense. After he was stopped for no gain, the Cowboys tried ANOTHER run, this one losing three yards to set up a critical fourth down. It was the kind of play-calling that would have had Vikings fans howling had it been their team (and in fact was questioned in Dallas).
The big play
Gophers: With Penn State pushed back and facing third-and-24, QB Sean Clifford threw toward the end zone. But Gophers defensive back Jordan Howden stepped in front of the pass and snagged a season-changing interception.
Vikings: Eric Kendricks made a fantastic, season-turning play on 4th down, tipping away a pass intended for Elliott that would have been enough for a first down.
The nightmare that didn’t happen
Gophers: The post-INT aftermath only involved two kneeldowns, but anyone who has watched the Gophers long enough needed to make sure nothing bad happened before the clock hit zero.
Vikings: On the first play after the turnover on downs, the Vikings tried a TOSS PITCH that Dalvin Cook turned into an exercise in juggling knives, finally corralling the ball after 80% of fans had passed out. And then, after Dallas forced a punt, Minnesota had to survive a Hail Mary — never been a problem with one of those against Dallas, right? — on the final play.
Gophers: If Penn State had scored and gone on to win, we would be talking today about how the Gophers choked again in a big game in front of a sellout home crowd. Instead, we’re talking about how the narrative with the program has changed and we’re imagining scenarios where the Gophers could make the College Football Playoff.
Vikings: If Dallas had scored and gone on to win, we’d be talking about how Cousins couldn’t put a team away with a fourth quarter drive when he had the chance and we surely would have invoked all of those negative lopsided records of his. And we’d be wondering if Mike Zimmer’s defense was in danger of major slippage. Instead, we’re talking about how Cousins changed the narrative and we’re wondering if this mix of offense and defense could make the Vikings dangerous once the playoffs roll around.