FORT COLLINS, Colo. – The Gophers knew it had been an ugly afternoon under a blistering sun, pressed up against the Rocky Mountain foothills. But they also knew they had time for one more drive, one more chance for something to finally go right.
They trailed Colorado State by four points with about three minutes to play, and wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky remembered thinking, “If you want to be a different team, this is the time to do it.”
Not just different from the game’s first 57 minutes. Different than the Gophers have been for decades.
About a half-hour later, after a wild finish, the Gophers were celebrating a 23-20 overtime victory in the shadows of Hughes Stadium, before the exhausted remnants of an announced sellout crowd of 32,500.
“Sometimes you’ve got to find a way to win on the road,” coach Jerry Kill said with a shrug. “It certainly wasn’t pretty.”
The Gophers (1-1) were in danger of falling to 0-2 for the first time since 2011, Kill’s first season.
Colorado State (1-1) was missing All-America receiver Rashard Higgins, who was out because of a lower-leg sprain. But the Rams, who were five-point underdogs, still came within a whisker of their first victory over a Power Five conference team in the 48-year history of Hughes Stadium.
“[The Gophers] have one of the best defenses I’ve seen in a while,” Rams coach Mike Bobo said. “We just couldn’t get anything going offensively.”
The Gophers could relate. Trailing 17-13, they took over at their own 20-yard line with 3:11 remaining. Mitch Leidner, who had struggled much of the game, led them all the way down the field.
Wide receiver KJ Maye had taken a vicious hit on the previous drive. The training staff tended to him on the sideline, but he was back in the game. With 55 seconds left, after a few other first-down conversions, Leidner threw 22 yards into the end zone, and Maye made a leaping catch.
“He’s a tough player,” Leidner said. “He bounces right up so you never really know [if he’s hurt]. He’s out there making plays.”
But the trainers kept Maye on the sideline for overtime. Kill said he was concerned about the senior but that he didn’t know what the injury was.
Colorado State used those remaining 55 seconds to drive for the tying field goal. The referees, who had made other favorable calls for the Gophers, called a questionable pass interference penalty on safety Antonio Johnson during that drive.
Redshirt freshman Wyatt Bryan sent the game to overtime with a 37-yard field goal, as time expired. Clearly deflated, the Gophers focused on controlling the extra session.
“I love the grit of our football team,” Kill said. “I’ve been around a long time with teams that have won a heck of a lot of games. And sometimes it takes something like these [close calls] to say, ‘Hey we can do this thing.’ ”
On the first play of overtime, Colorado State running back Dalyn Dawkins caught a pass and had the ball stripped by linebacker Cody Poock.
“I was just thinking hit him as hard as I can,” Poock said. “That’s about it.”
The ball went airborne right to 6-4, 290-pound defensive tackle Scott Ekpe. “I said, ‘Don’t mess up,’ ” Ekpe said. “It’s happened before in practice. So I knew it was now or never. Luckily, I caught it.”
Each overtime possession starts at the 25-yard line, so the Gophers were already in Santoso’s range. In the first half, he hit from 35 and 50 yards, though he missed a 46-yard attempt in the second half.
Rodney Smith, who rushed for 108 yards in his first career start, sank Colorado State’s chances in overtime. He had five rushes for 24 yards, moving the ball to the 1 before the Gophers sent Santoso in on third-and-goal for his winning chip shot from 18 yards.
Leidner finished 23-for-45 for 233 yards and two touchdowns. He also was part of two lost fumbles — one on a botched snap and one on a handoff. The junior said the team’s postgame emotions were all over the place in the locker room.
“I think Coach [Kill] came in there and talked, and then guys sat around being quiet for a little,” Leidner said. “And then someone said, ‘Hey, we won! Let’s get excited. Let’s get the Rouser going.’ ”
They sang. They danced. They exhaled.