The odds certainly are stacked against the Gophers. They're playing fourth-ranked Ohio State in their season opener Thursday night, facing a Buckeyes team that hasn't lost a Big Ten game since 2018 and coming off a runner-up finish in the College Football Playoff.
There's more, of course. Minnesota, a 14-point underdog, will take to the Huntington Bank Stadium turf without a victory over Ohio State since 2000 and without a home triumph over the Buckeyes in four decades, when the Gophers were playing at Memorial Stadium. In the past 41 meetings, Ohio State has won 39.
Still, there's a glorious opportunity available if the Gophers can defy the odds and seize it, a chance to add what might be the program's biggest win in a generation.
"They're one of the best programs in all of college football — now, then, historically,'' Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said. "… There's nothing more you can ask for to kick off college football.''
The Buckeyes would appear to be in a reloading year as coach Ryan Day's team enters the opener with some question marks. Ohio State is breaking in a new starting quarterback, redshirt freshman C.J. Stroud, who has yet to throw a collegiate pass.
The Buckeyes lost 10 players to the 2021 NFL draft, including a pair of linebackers and three other starters on defense. And a team that has national title aspirations always plays with the pressure of perfection as a shadow.
"The hard part is you're not allowed to lose around here,'' Day said. "… It doesn't need to be perfect. It doesn't need to be anything more than a gritty win on the road.''
There's one more intangible in the Gophers' favor when they take the field in front of an expected sellout crowd: Ohio State's last three Big Ten losses — against Purdue in 2018, Iowa in 2017 and Penn State in 2016 — all came on the road. At night.
How the Gophers might win
1. Become ball hogs
It's the simplest formula for winning football games but one that's not easily executed against a powerful foe: Keep the ball away from the opponent's offense by using long, time-consuming drives, and on defense, make the opponent take time to score rather than giving up long TD plays.
In Fleck's time as Gophers coach, this approach worked in two of his team's biggest victories: the 2018 game at Wisconsin and the Outback Bowl vs. Auburn following the 2019 season.
2018, Gophers 37, Wisconsin 15: Minnesota entered the road game with 14 consecutive losses in the battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe and was a 10½-point underdog. Instead, the Gophers left Madison victorious after holding the ball for 10:50 of the first quarter and 35:06 to the Badgers' 24:54 for the game.
Minnesota had drives of 10, nine, eight and nine plays in building a 23-7 lead entering the fourth quarter. Then the Gophers delivered the dagger with a 15-play, 55-yard march that lasted 9:16. It ended with a missed field goal, but by munching that much time off the clock, the Gophers guaranteed they'd go home with the Axe. Mohamed Ibrahim did much of the damage, rushing 21 times for 121 yards and one TD.
2020 Outback Bowl, No. 13 Gophers 31, No. 9 Auburn 24: In a game that featured Tyler Johnson's 12-catch, 204-yard, two-TD performance, ball control still was huge for the Gophers against an SEC power that was favored by 6½ points. Minnesota held the ball for 37:35 to Auburn's 22:25, and a dominant fourth-quarter march sealed the win.
Up seven points with 8:38 to play after an Auburn punt, the Gophers never let the Tigers touch the ball again. Minnesota reeled off 16 plays for 68 yards, keyed by a fourth-down conversion from Tanner Morgan to tight end Bryce Witham and Ibrahim's six consecutive rushes — the final one pushing Auburn defenders in a rugby-like scrum. Ibrahim finished with 140 rushing yards and one TD.
"It's a huge emphasis,'' Gophers offensive lineman Blaise Andries said. "… During the fourth quarter against both Wisco and Auburn, we had to pound the ball, get that first down and dominate up front. That's our style of ball.''
Gophers offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. appreciates what those long drives can do, but he knows he must be prepared for any type of game.
"We've got to move the football offensively,'' he said. "We're not going to be thinking about, 'Let's hold onto the ball for X amount of minutes,' because if you start getting tied up with that, you lose sight of where the defense is giving you opportunities.''
2. Get big plays, feast on turnovers
2019, No. 13 Gophers 31, No. 5 Penn State 26: In the signature win of Fleck's Gophers career, Morgan threw TD passes of 66 yards to Rashod Bateman, 21 yards to Chris Autman-Bell and 38 yards to Johnson to beat the Nittany Lions, who were 6½-point favorites. Still, the Gophers needed a pair of interceptions by Antoine Winfield Jr., and one to end the final Penn State threat by Jordan Howden before fans could rush the field.
3. Get a timely special teams score
Flash back to the 2018 win over Wisconsin. With the Gophers up 10-0 with 1:05 left in the first half, Demetrius Douglas returned a punt 69 yards for a TD, a play that became more important when the Badgers cut the lead to 17-7 with one second left before intermission.
How Ohio State has lost
In Big Ten play, Ohio State has lost only three games over the past five seasons, all under former coach Urban Meyer, all against unranked teams, and each sheds some light on how to beat the Buckeyes.
1. Ride the emotion and crowd
2018, Purdue 49, No. 2 Ohio State 20: On an emotional night in West Lafayette, Ind., when the Boilermakers were saluting cancer-stricken superfan Tyler Trent, Purdue scored first, then took a 14-3 halftime lead and rode two TD catches by Rondale Moore and three TD runs from D.J. Knox in the rout. David Blough passed for 378 yards and three scores.
2. Take that ball away
2017, Iowa 55, No. 6 Ohio State 24: This night game went sideways for the Buckeyes from the get-go, with Iowa's Amani Hooker intercepting QB J.T. Barrett on the first play from scrimmage and returning it 30 yards for a TD. Barrett would throw four picks, leading to 17 Iowa points.
3. Block that kick
2016, Penn State 24, No. 2 Ohio State 21: The Buckeyes were in control, up 21-7 entering the fourth quarter in front of a white-out crowd in State College, Pa. Instead, the Nittany Lions cut the lead to 21-17 before Ohio State lined up for a 45-yard field-goal attempt with 4:38 left. Penn State's Marcus Allen blocked that kick, and Haley Grant returned it 60 yards for the winning touchdown.
Those are just a handful of ways for the Gophers to win and Ohio State to lose. Thursday night will determine if any apply. What is sure, however, is the magnitude of the game for the home team.
"This is a game that everyone's talking about,'' Sanford said. "You live for these moments.''