The Gophers football team’s victory over then-No. 4 Penn State last Saturday was hardly unprecedented. In 1999, a promising and accomplished coach named Glen Mason led the Gophers to an upset of second-ranked Penn State in Happy Valley.
Objectively, because of rankings and site, Mason’s upset was more impressive. Mason also led the Gophers to victory at the Big House in Ann Arbor.
The Gophers have won big games before. They have upset highly ranked teams and traditional powers before.
What was different about their latest upset was that it didn’t look like an upset.
Since Murray Warmath retired, Gophers football’s biggest victories have felt epic because of the pervasive, underlying feeling, shared if often unsaid among Gophers boosters and players, that any big victory could be classified as an epic upset.
Saturday, the Gophers faced the fourth-ranked team in the country and beat it, and there was little doubt that the better team won.
The Gophers fielded the better quarterback, the two best receivers, the best defensive back and, at least on that day, the better coach. There was nothing flukish about the victory.
Perhaps just as important for coach P.J. Fleck and his program, the Gophers passed the eye test even for those who, after watching Gophers fans storm the field at TCF Bank Stadium, watched NFL scouts storm the field at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
In a game that started on Saturday morning, the Gophers beat Penn State. In a game that started on Saturday afternoon, the LSU Tigers defeated Alabama. While LSU and Alabama clearly have more depth of talent than perhaps any other college programs, the Gophers’ best would not have looked out of place in that game.
Tanner Morgan is not the NFL prospect that Tua Tagovailoa or Joe Burrow is, but neither of them could have played much better than Morgan did on Saturday. Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman would have looked at home among the sleek athletes at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa.
Antoine Winfield Jr. is one of the best players in the country. It’s obvious that Winfield has learned from his father’s savvy, while building a football body that his lean-and-light father could only have dreamed of.
The Gophers have graduated players to the NFL, but few have made an impact. Laurence Maroney was a first-round draft pick who started 17 NFL games. Tyrone Carter bounced around the league. Eric Decker is the rare Gophers star who became an NFL star.
There are great college players who don’t excel in the NFL, and there is nothing wrong with that. This crop of Gophers, though, looks different.
Bateman may be the best player the Gophers have featured since Decker. Johnson looks like an NFL receiver. Winfield has to have value in a league desperate for safeties who can read offenses and deliver big plays. Morgan has the most to prove among his peers because playing quarterback in the NFL is an impossible task for most human beings, but his rapid rate of improvement over the last calendar year makes him an intriguing growth stock.
Asked if he considers his team’s talent “elite,’’ Fleck launched into an answer that sounded like a campaign speech. He noted that his team doesn’t have many four- or five-star recruits but that “they really love each other and sacrifice for each other, and when you’ve got everybody rowing the boat in the same direction, same speed, same efficiency, all believing in the same vision, it’s a powerful force.’’
Sure. But football is a game of matchups, and you can’t win big games without athletes who can win one-on-one duels. Bateman and Johnson won consistently on Saturday against Penn State defensive backs, and Morgan and Winfield quarterbacked their groups like the unpaid professional athletes they are.
Later in the news conference, Fleck said: “It’s always players. Players gotta go play. They’ve got to be the reason you win. It’s a players game.’’
Some oars move faster than others.