The Gophers, getting whipped for most of the afternoon on Saturday, decided to go for it on fourth-and-6 in the third quarter at the Illinois 22-yard line. Quarterback Tanner Morgan dropped back to throw and was immediately enveloped by Illini linebacker Owen Carney for a sack.
Carney and a couple of his Illinois teammates celebrated with a row-the-boat motion in the backfield before they headed to the sideline. It accurately reflected how the afternoon went for the Gophers. Minnesota needed outboard motors vs. the Illini, but none apparently were available. Instead, they succumbed in a 14-6 loss against a rebuilding Illinois team.
Who were these impostors Saturday? Illinois is the program trying to get where the 20th-ranked Gophers are. Coach P.J. Fleck extolled Illinois' qualities following the game, pointing out the nine-overtime victory over Penn State two weeks ago in Happy Valley. But Minnesota has a better overall roster, except for the kicking game.
The Gophers entered Saturday on a four-game winning streak, in the top spot the Big Ten West Division and with a real chance to reach Indianapolis for the conference title game. The progress was enough for athletic director Mark Coyle to finalize a seven-year contract for Fleck, a stamp of approval on an ascending program.
There was a good feeling about locking up Fleck and restoring a hefty buyout over the first few years in case potential suitors come calling. Fans and recruits can see that the university believes in the direction Fleck has the team headed.
The deal comes at a critical point of the season. You head into November with one or two losses, that means it's time to press the accelerator and finish the job. Winning big late-season games leads to bigger bowl games that further legitimize a program's status. And the West — including a trip to Indy — is right there for the Gophers to take.
The campus buzzed Saturday morning as kickoff neared. It was unseasonably warm and the football team is winning. University Avenue was a nightclub as music thumped out of the frat houses and was accompanied by the usual gyrations and libations. This had to be the atmosphere the folks in charge wanted their football program to create.
A columnist was heckled by a Fleck supporter as he entered Huntington Bank Stadium, the supporter demanding fairer treatment of his smooth-talking leader. The columnist responded that he likes Fleck because he provides fodder for five to 10 columns a year.
An energized announced crowd of 46,382 then took their seats and watched all the Gophers' momentum come to a screeching halt. The one-game Illinois championship season not only was lost, but it was lost spectacularly.
It was the rare occasion in which both the offensive and defensive lines were outplayed. Those are the engines that got the Gophers to six victories. The heralded offensive line gave up six sacks and committed four penalties. Morgan, when he wasn't being chased, was inconsistent with his throws and failed to notice a few wide-open receivers. Matthew Trickett missed a long field-goal attempt to end the first half and then an extra point in the fourth quarter. Breakdowns everywhere.
You do not let a three-win Illinois team come into your house and row your boats. Illini coach Brett Bielema now is 8-0 against the Gophers, including his time at Wisconsin.
"There's been highs and there's been lows," linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin said. "At the end of the day, were going to stick together. This team is very close and we're going to get back to work tomorrow."
Work smartly, because the Gophers must enter the cauldron at Iowa City's Kinnick Stadium next weekend, where they have not won since 1999. They will need to exit with a victory to restore momentum as they chase a title. The Gophers couldn't have won the division on Saturday, but the result could be the beginning of how they let it slip away.