TAMPA, FLA. – Tyler Johnson launched off the field and outstretched his right arm.
Eyes pinned on the ball as it smacked into his curved palm. His right foot, toe pointed, just barely tapped the green turf before he tumbled out of bounds.
Like Michelangelo’s hand of God imparting the spark of life to Adam, Johnson ignited the Gophers. Not just to a divine victory against SEC powerhouse Auburn in the Outback Bowl but to a future that doesn’t just look bright — it might be electric.
Johnson, a senior playing his last collegiate game, caught 12 passes for 204 yards and two touchdowns to become the Gophers’ all-time leader in receiving yards and touchdowns in the 31-24 win against the No. 12 Tigers on Wednesday at Raymond James Stadium. He cemented his legacy of 213 catches for 3,305 yards and 33 touchdowns by helping build the No. 18 Gophers program into one that demands national attention and respect after an 11-2 season.
“It was my last chance to go out there and give everything I got,” Johnson said. “To be able to not only represent myself but my family and my community. One last chance at the school that I decided to go to, back four years ago.”
Johnson’s journey embodies that of the entire senior class, with many of the 12 other graduating players from the same 2016 recruiting class. While their impact on the field has been prominent, from seven key defensive players to the all-purpose yards record-holder in running back Rodney Smith, the path they’ve paved off it has led the Gophers to their current star status.
For Johnson, he came back for this final season despite the allure of the NFL. He did so to show his five younger siblings the importance of graduating from college, to show his north Minneapolis community what hometown pride means, to show his young receiving corps how it’s done.
Johnson said seeing out his Gophers career instead of turning pro last year was “definitely worth it.”
“He’s going to leave here the greatest receiver in the history of the University of Minnesota,” said teary-eyed Gophers coach P.J. Fleck. “… Everybody is going to look at that game. Every NFL scout, every NFL wide receiver coach, GM, president is going to watch that game.
“Look at what he just did.”
An announced crowd of 45,652, saturated with Gophers fans, saw it all, what Johnson achieved and more. They witnessed the Gophers respond from early setbacks such as quarterback Tanner Morgan’s interception on the third play and a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. They watched sophomore running back Mohamed Ibrahim reclaim his No. 1 spot, one he took up for an injured Smith last year but ceded with no qualms back to his mentor this season.
Ibrahim, last year’s Quick Lane Bowl MVP with 224 yards, ran for 140 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries against Auburn. He dragged defenders for every extra yard and exploited every hole his offensive line gave him, with that unit refusing to bend to Auburn’s veteran defensive line boasting SEC Defensive Player of the Year Derrick Brown.
The senior-heavy defense held Auburn’s rush, which averaged 211 yards per game heading into Wednesday, to just 56 yards. The Tigers converted only three of 11 third downs.
“Throughout the entire season, it was one of those things where we have to earn everybody’s respect,” senior defensive end Carter Coughlin said. “And we did this year. We earned the respect and respect from other conferences now. And now that’s just a wake up to the rest of the world.”
Coughlin finished his time with the Gophers upholding his father’s and grandfather’s legacies. Linebacker Thomas Barber did the same for his father and two brothers. They’re both Minnesota natives in Johnson’s same class that Coughlin nicknamed all those years ago as the “Empire,” after how the Romans dominated their era.
“That all has to start somewhere,” Coughlin said. “We kind of started that. I think that we were a part in making Gopher football what we’ve always dreamed it could be.”
This could just be the beginning for the Gophers, who probably will enter next season ranked and return all but two of their offensive starters, including Morgan and next-in-line receiver Rashod Bateman.
For Johnson, Coughlin, Barber and more, though, this is the end.
On his penultimate catch for the Gophers, Johnson looked up in the open field. He would track the ball as it dropped into his waiting hands before running free to the end zone for a 73-yard touchdown.
But in that moment, he was Adam. Looking up into the light, anticipating what’s to come.