The last time Michigan State played a night game at TCF Bank Stadium resulted in the last significant victory for coach Tim Brewster. It came on Halloween night in 2009, it was the fifth home game in the new stadium, and Adam Weber outdueled Kirk Cousins to give the Gophers a 42-34 victory.
This put the Gophers at 5-4 for the season and Brewster at 12-10 for his second and third years in Minnesota. Any suggestion on that rowdy, victorious night that less than a year later Brewster would become the first Gophers football coach to be replaced in midseason was preposterous.
The seven home crowds were all announced as 50,805 sellouts during that first fall back on campus, although the stadium actually was full for the 7 p.m. visit from Sparty.
Weber opened the scoring by tossing a 62-yard touchdown pass to running back Duane Bennett, closed it with another 59-yard touchdown to Bennett, and then the Gophers’ defense managed to hold Cousins and the Spartans scoreless over the final six minutes.
Weber finished 19-for-31 for 416 yards, one interception and five touchdowns, and is now working as an assistant to offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch at UCLA. Fisch was Brewster’s offensive coordinator for the single season of 2009.
Cousins finished 21-for-35 for 236 yards, one interception and two touchdowns, and is now making $23.9 million as the starting quarterback for the Washington Redskins.
Eight years later, the night visitors from East Lansing, Mich., provide P.J. Fleck — the shorter, shaved-head version of Brewster as a hyper-salesman — with a chance for his first significant victory, as well as his first home sellout.
On the surface, the Gophers would seem a long shot, considering Michigan State’s 14-10 victory over Michigan in Ann Arbor last weekend. The oddsmakers know the truth: It was five Michigan turnovers that handed the upset to the Spartans.
Michigan State’s new quarterback, Brian Lewerke, had 94 yards passing, and Sparty’s offense totaled 252 yards. Fleck might stick with his promise to start Conor Rhoda, the limited fifth-year senior, but a couple of early punts and Demry Croft will be back from Fleck’s outhouse at least to give MSU’s defense a running threat to consider.
There is no expectation for a Weber-Cousins redo, with Michigan State as a modest four-point favorite and the over-under at an atrociously low 40 ½.
There was a need here to review that previous moment in Sparty-Gophers history, and to disseminate reality on this week’s challenge, just in case the Fleckian hard-cores were planning to get overheated in the event of a mild upset.
Then again, it would be a monumental achievement for the players, what with the coach’s constant woe-is-my-roster spiel in his campaign to lower expectations.
As a player, you participate in the winter workout program, in spring football, in the summer workout program, and August practice, and then the new coach — completely for his aggrandizement and not yours — advertises this as Year Zero for his program.
Could anyone blame the upperclassmen, the players involved in the 9-4 record and bowl upset in 2016, from sitting around, having a beer and wondering why this self-promoter is implying they are Private Zeros, that Fleck has been put in position to start from the bottom?
Pete Thamel, now at Yahoo Sports after a run at Sports Illustrated, became a fan of Fleck a few years back at Western Michigan. Recently, Thamel had a sitdown with Fleck and then turned it into a promotional essay for the coach.
It couldn’t have been more of a lovefest if Phillip John had written it himself, which apparently he did, because the byline read: P.J. Fleck.
P.J. the author was very proud of P.J. the coach’s conduct in “a great teaching moment’’ early in his tenure with the Gophers.
Fleck saw a photo attachment on Twitter with one player holding an alcohol bottle, and several others with alcohol around them. And then he called a team meeting to ask:
“If I put a picture of my wife, Heather, and I am posing with alcohol, what would happen to me if those got tweeted out?”
Apparently, to his face, the Gophers acted as if this were the always-coveted teaching moment. I’m guessing when they left the meeting, the juvenile nature of this comparison was worth a giant laugh.
Michigan State by four. That’s not much, but then again it’s Year Zero, and Phillip John keeps telling us how great failure is for the future of his program.
HIS. Not the players’. They are just pawns in the Game of Being P.J.