EVANSTON, Ill. – January. January. January.
Throughout this historic Gophers football season — with 10 regular-season wins for the first time since 1905 — fans and pundits alike have raced ahead, anticipating a Big Ten West title clash Nov. 30 with Wisconsin, a potential Big Ten Championship Game on Dec. 7 against Ohio State, a New Year’s Six bowl game.
But all this time, the Gophers have stayed rooted 10 months in the past.
Even after beating Northwestern 38-22 on Saturday to help the No. 10 Gophers improve to 10-1, including seven conference wins for the first time in program history, people continue to ask how this was possible for a team with such perennially low expectations.
But the players knew that answer way back in that time of winter workouts after finishing the 2018 season 7-6. Quarterback Tanner Morgan had called the meeting for just his teammates where they all decided their fate: The Gophers would be great.
“’We can be special this year. We just need to work and commit to each other,’ ” receiver Rashod Bateman recalled. “And at that moment, the team did it.”
Now the rest of the world is finally seeing what the players have felt was there all along. The Gophers delivered on that internal promise.
Morgan returned from a concussion after back-to-back sacks late in the Iowa loss a week ago to set the Gophers’ single-season passing touchdown record at 26. He completed 15 of 23 passes for 211 yards, four touchdowns and one interception.
Two receivers caught those scores, Tyler Johnson with one and Rashod Bateman with three. The pair each made seven catches, with Johnson garnering 125 yards and Bateman 78, pushing both past 1,000 receiving yards this season — a program first.
Sixth-year senior running back Rodney Smith shared carries with Shannon Brooks and Mohamed Ibrahim. Brooks scored the only rushing touchdown while Ibrahim amassed 76 yards, but Smith was the one who vaulted into 1,000-yard rushing territory for just the second time in his career with his 77 yards Saturday.
Defensively, safety Antoine Winfield Jr. made a game-high 11 tackles, nine solo, including one strip sack for a loss of 10 yards. That beeline hit took Northwestern’s surprise starter Hunter Johnson out of the game, with fourth-string quarterback Andrew Marty replacing him.
But as more of a runner, Marty caused the defense — which had forced three-and-outs on the Wildcats’ first two drives — some trouble.
Winfield said he felt raised intensity within his team from almost a year ago, and it’s carried through to the present, even during these on-field struggles.
“We’ve been talking about this ever since last winter,” Winfield said. “And it’s important that we just continue to keep getting better.”
The Gophers went from a 21-0 lead to a two-possession margin before halftime thanks to plays like Morgan’s interception sailing right to a Northwestern linebacker and his throw-away while trying to avoid a sack in the end zone putting Northwestern on the board with a safety for intentional grounding. But Demetrius Douglas failing to catch a punt is what pinned the Gophers at their own 6 in the first place.
However, the defense’s failure to recover Winfield’s hard-earned forced fumble could have avoided the sequence all together.
The game was not perfect, especially against a scoring offense that ranked second-to-last of 130 FBS teams at 14.5 points per game entering Saturday. Plus the continued special teams gaffes. But Gophers coach P.J. Fleck just kept referring to January.
“I remember telling everybody in January, I said, I really like this football team. I can’t promise you what they’re going to do. I have no idea what’s going to happen. But I really like this football team,” Fleck said. “… And we can talk about all the things we don’t do or haven’t done or won’t do. Or we can all go back and look at Iowa. This is a very, very special football team, with special people.”
That quality extends beyond the football field to how hard the players work off it, how much they genuinely love each other, how they’d do anything — no matter what the job — if it benefited the team.
The Gophers are one game away — after months in the making — from validating their radical collective thought.
“Just going back to January, that’s what we all worked for,” Bateman said. “And now we’ve got a chance to go do it, and the work that we have put in is starting to pay off. And we just need to go pay off one more time.
“And then, we’re there.”