Nobody has covered Gophers football more than I have, and when I look back to the big victories in program history, I have to give coach P.J. Fleck credit: His 31-24 win over Auburn at the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day is one of the most important in school history.
There have been other big wins, like beating No. 1 Michigan 16-0 in 1977 and winning at No. 2 Penn State in 1999, but there’s a difference with this victory.
It gave the Gophers 11 wins on the season, their most since the team went 13-0 in 1904, and it also gives them the kind of momentum they haven’t had since the 1960s.
While the Gophers were picked to finish sixth in the Big Ten West before this season, they likely will be favored to reach the Big Ten Championship Game next season.
The Gophers will finish this season with their highest Associated Press ranking since 1962 when they ended the year ranked No. 10.
“First and foremost you have to give a lot of credit to Auburn, one of the blue bloods of college football, one of the most traditional football programs in all of college football,” Fleck said in his news conference after the game. “[Auburn coach] Guz Malzahn is one of the best people and one of the best coaches in the country. I told him after the game it was an honor to coach against him.
“I remember when we got the matchup, I was so excited because it’s like, you get a chance to coach against one of the best people in college football. I have a lot of respect for him and his football team. That’s a heck of a football team that our team just beat.”
Fleck continued: “We used to be a blue blood back in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, and we talk about the word of the year is ‘restore,’ we want to restore that tradition. We haven’t won a championship yet in the Big Ten, but we stayed, we found a way to be resilient and we found a way to be a champion at the end of the year.”
Beat a blue blood
No, this wasn’t just some exhibition game. Auburn brought its best team to the field and had a dream start to the game with an interception of Tanner Morgan on the third play from scrimmage and a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
But the Gophers absolutely dominated in every statistical category.
For Fleck it is his second straight bowl win in a game where the pundits didn’t give his team a shot. The Gophers beat Georgia Tech 34-10 in the Quick Lane Bowl last season as 5 ½-point underdogs.
Auburn was favored by 6 ½ points, and it was easy to see why. In their most recent game, the Tigers topped then-No. 5 Alabama 48-45, and before that they nearly upset LSU in Baton Rouge in October, losing 23-20.
The Tigers also beat Oregon and Texas A&M, and their only losses were to then-No. 10 Florida, No. 2 LSU and No. 4 Georgia by a combined 21 points.
The Gophers outgained the Tigers 494 yards to 232. They held the ball for 37 minutes, 35 seconds compared to 22:25. And they had the more dynamic playmakers.
Tyler Johnson cemented his place as the best pass catcher in school history with 12 receptions for 202 yards and two scores, including a 73-yard TD reception from Morgan with 10:26 left in the game that marked the final score.
That was the easier of Johnson’s two touchdowns, as he also made the catch of the year on a tightrope grab in the back of the end zone with 32 seconds remaining in the first half.
His being named Outback Bowl MVP capped one of the best careers for a local player in Gophers history.
He will be a high NFL draft pick this year, too, and that will only add to his importance to the program.
That the Gophers put together this offensive performance against one of the best defensive teams in the nation speaks to the job Fleck and his staff did after offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca left the program a week before the bowl game.
On fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, Seth Green went into the wildcat and threw a play-action touchdown to Bryce Witham that capped a 12-play, 92-yard drive and gave the Gophers a 17-10 lead in the first half.
It was Green’s first pass attempt in over a year.
And it was Witham again who made a huge play late in the fourth quarter with the Gophers up by a touchdown.
On fourth-and-1 from the Auburn 41, Morgan lobbed a ball to Witham for an 11-yard, one-handed reception that helped seal the game.
The Gophers had scoring drives of 12 plays for 92 yards and nine plays for 75 yards and they ended the game on a 16-play, 68-yard drive that chewed up over eight minutes.
The one area where it looked like the Gophers might have a chance to compete with Auburn was in the passing game, where the Tigers ranked 40th in the nation, giving up 208.4 yards per game.
The Gophers took advantage of that, as Morgan completed 19 of 29 passes for 278 yards and two scores — his 29th and 30th of the season.
But maybe the biggest surprise was in the running game. Auburn was allowing just 115.5 rushing yards per game, but the Gophers gained 226, which was easily the most against the Tigers all season.
The previous high was when LSU ran for 187 yards.
The program can carry this momentum into next season because players such as Morgan, wide receiver Rashod Bateman and Mohamed Ibrahim will be back.
And defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr. still has to decide whether to go pro or return for his junior season.
If Winfield returns, the defense will have a great shot at maintaining its high level of play.
Ibrahim’s play running the ball Wednesday was incredible, given how much praise had been lavished on the Auburn defensive line.
He had 140 yards on 20 carries, an even 7 yards per rush, and scored a touchdown.
But there’s no doubt the Gophers will miss this senior class. On top of Johnson, senior defensive back Chris Williamson led the team with seven tackles, senior linebacker Carter Coughlin added five tackles, and senior running back Rodney Smith had 77 rushing yards.
Yes, the Gophers will need to replace some players on defense, but with the roster they have coming back and the momentum from this win, next season will be the most anticipated campaign in nearly 60 years.