BOULDER, COLO. — Last Saturday afternoon, the Gophers held a 21-3 halftime lead over Miami (Ohio) and were set to get the ball to start the third quarter. The game certainly wasn't over, but Minnesota had the chance to squelch any thoughts of a RedHawks rally by opening the second half with a dominant drive.
"I wanted to come out at halftime and make it very clear that we were not going to sit back and rest on our laurels,'' Gophers offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. said. "We were going to go play football in the second half.''
Instead, the Gophers had a pair of three-and-outs that bracketed a possession that stalled near midfield. That helped Miami rally, as it pulled within one point, to the frustration of Minnesota fans, before the Gophers ultimately prevailed 31-26.
The result was another example of how this team has found itself walking a tightrope in early-season nonconference play.
The Gophers enter Saturday's game at Colorado with a 20-game winning streak against nonconference opponents, the longest active run in major college football. The past four of those early-season victories, however, have been by an average of 4.5 points. Three of them needed fourth-quarter comebacks for the Gophers to win, and last week's game needed some momentum-swinging fourth-quarter plays.
"You have to find a way to scratch, claw, fight, do what's needed to go win a football game,'' Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said.
Saturday at picturesque Folsom Field at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, the Gophers will have to find a way against a rising Pac-12 team. Colorado is in the second year of a rebuild under coach Karl Dorrell, who guided the team to a 4-2 record with an Alamo Bowl appearance in the truncated 2020 season. Last week, the Buffaloes led then-No. 5 Texas A&M until the Aggies scored the winning TD with 2 minutes, 41 seconds left in the fourthquarter.
"The challenge is there. They are as advertised,'' Sanford said. "The more and more film you watch, they're really, really good. We've got to be at our best. We've got to make plays.''
Playing tight nonconference games doesn't preclude a team from having a successful season — as long as they win those contests. The Gophers showed that on their way to an 11-2 record and top-10 national finish in 2019.
- They needed to recover a South Dakota State fumble at the opponent's 34-yard line with 8:12 left in the fourth quarter to set up the decisive touchdown in a 28-21 win over the FCS-level Jackrabbits.
- In a 38-35 double-overtime win at Fresno State, Chris Autman-Bell's 20-yard TD catch on fourth-and-13 with 46 seconds left got the Gophers to overtime, and they won it on Antoine Winfield Jr.'s walkoff interception.
- And in the 35-32 escape against Georgia Southern, the Gophers faced third-and-29 from their 6-yard line before Tanner Morgan hooked up with Demetrius Douglas for gains of 21 and 8 yards to move the chains on their final possession. Morgan's 2-yard TD pass to Tyler Johnson won the game with 13 seconds left.
Wins over Miami (Ohio), South Dakota State and Georgia Southern might not move the needle like a Power Five triumph can with the average fan, but Fleck considers the task easier said than done.
"People don't know how good those teams truly are,'' he said. "They look at the newspaper and look at what the spread is. And it's, 'OK, we should do X, Y and Z.' ''
Since the Gophers didn't blow out Miami last week, there was consternation among the fan base. They won by making big plays in the fourth quarter, getting a 41-yard kickoff return by freshman Mar'Keise "Bucky'' Irving to set up a TD drive, cashing in Tyler Nubin's interception for a 50-yard field goal by Matthew Trickett and using Trey Potts' 83 fourth-quarter rushing yards to drain the clock.
That took away the sting of the offensive miscues and a Minnesota defense that gave up 5.2 yards per first-down play during Miami's comeback. In addition, a late hit on the Miami QB wiped out a Gophers defensive stop on fourth-and-10. The RedHawks scored their final TD on the next play.
"You've got to play complementary football,'' Sanford said. "Special teams complemented us and gives us the ball and we score a touchdown. The defense goes out and gets a stop. And we go out and end the game on offense in a four-minute situation.''
Saturday, they Gophers will find out if that ability to make big plays just in the nick of time travels with them to the Rockies.