The game took place 29 years ago this week. It was the mother of all home games, a visit by Notre Dame, ranked No. 1 nationally with a fleet of All-America talent.
I was a few months into my freshman year at the University of Tennessee. The Vols were ranked No. 9 nationally and also blessed with high-end football talent, especially at receiver.
Campus felt electric all week. A sense of anticipation consumed every waking hour. Friends in my dorm dissected Notre Dame’s depth chart and statistics. I acted like Charlie Bucket from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” when I picked up my ticket for the game. “ ’Cause I’ve got a golden ticket …”
More than 97,000 orange-wearing zealots crammed into Neyland Stadium that Saturday. It was college football at its finest. Pure pageantry, two terrific teams and unbridled hysteria all stirred together.
The game matched the hype, or even surpassed it. Hard fought with momentum swings, late drama and, unfortunately, a heartbreaking finish that included Rocket Ismail’s 44-yard touchdown run around right end late in the fourth quarter. Until that play, I didn’t know it was possible for a human to run that fast.
The Vols lost 34-29, and that stung, but memories of that week and game remain fresh in my mind’s eye. I hope some freshmen at the University of Minnesota remember this week similarly three decades from now.
No. 5 Penn State visits the 13th-ranked Gophers on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium in a clash of 8-0 teams. A legitimate big game under a national spotlight, which, for those new to Gophers football, happens every half-century or so. Or so it seems.
Everyone has an opinion in identifying a historical landmark that underscores this game’s importance. The whole “biggest game since …” argument. Mine? Easy, Michigan 2003. This is the biggest home game since that Friday night.
Others go back further. The last Gophers home game in which both teams were ranked in the top 15 came in 1961.
Current coach P.J. Fleck called this “one of the biggest games in Minnesota history.” Perhaps that’s a hint of hyperbole but who cares? Bronko Nagurski might not have argued with it.
Embrace it, Gophers fans. This moment. Especially the diehards, who have witnessed more than their fair share of, um, stuff over the decades. They definitely deserve to experience the excitement and anxiousness in a game of this magnitude. This is what makes college football a unique spectacle and, in my humble opinion, the greatest sport ever invented. Weeks like this one.
Stop worrying about “College GameDay” and celebrate being relevant in November. That’s what matters most. The Gophers are 8-0 for the first time since 1941. Yes, their schedule has been filled with lightweights, but to repeat, the Gophers are 8-0 for the first time since 1941.
Anyone who has followed Gophers football longer than 15 minutes knows that previous teams have produced more eggs than a hen house when things seemed to be going swimmingly.
Being a college football fan in a crowded pro sports market can be tough sledding, especially since the Gophers have sabotaged their own momentum so many times over the years.
In the South, college football is often the only show in town. There are certain weekends when a person absolutely cannot, under any circumstances, get married or die.
The Gophers so rarely make a broad audience take notice that the grandeur of a fall Saturday on campus is treated as something between unremarkable and unknown. It’s a beautiful painting that hangs in someone else’s home.
Well, college football matters in the Twin Cities this week. Skeptics will snicker about lagging ticket sales, and it’s both true and obvious, widespread belief requires more than one season to cultivate. But the focus should be on the game, the stakes, the opportunity at hand for the Gophers to make a bold statement.
Fleck hopes to make weeks such as this one more than a 50-year storm. But this game offers a taste of it. This is how college football should feel.