College Football: The Rise of the Golden Gophers

Note: On occasion, we like to publish stories that expand past the halls of “The Hall”. This is one of those stories!

By Aiden Wacksman

Whether it was Minnesota’s rise into the Top 10, Louisiana State University’s incredible championship run, or Auburn’s thrilling Iron Bowl victory, the 2019-20 college football season was filled with shocking upsets and close calls. Here’s a recap of one of the best stories from this college football season: the resurgence of the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers.

The Golden Gophers started the season unranked and unnoticed. Its 2019 season started off with four very close games against subpar programs, including the likes of Fresno State and Georgia Southern. The Golden Gophers’ game against Fresno State went into double overtime, only to be sealed by defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr.’s interception and a 37-yard field goal by Michael Lantz. Against Georgia Southern, the Gophers trailed with under a minute remaining. Quarterback Tanner Morgan led an incredible 75-yard touchdown drive, capping it off with a two-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Tyler Johnson. These “down to the wire” games, however, dissipated after a 38-31 conference win against Purdue. The Gophers outscored Nebraska, Rutgers, and Maryland by a combined 104 points before entering its first ranked matchup of the season against fourth-ranked Penn State.

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Minnesota Quarterback Tanner Morgan
Courtesy of The Golden Gopher

The now 8-0 Golden Gophers anticipated what would be an exciting and difficult matchup against the Nittany Lions. The Gophers defeated Penn State 31-26, a great breakthrough for a program that hadn’t seen the light of day in such a long time. Morgan had a nearly flawless performance, passing for 339 yards and three touchdowns. Wide receiver Rashod Bateman also had a career day, hauling in seven passes for 204 yards and a touchdown.

At this point in the season, Minnesota was 9-0 and ranked inside the Associated Press (AP) Top 10 for the first time since 1962. This, however, is when Minnesota battled adversity. After a huge victory against Penn State, the Gophers took a 23-19 loss to the 20th ranked University of Iowa Hawkeyes at Kinnick Stadium. After a bounce- back win against Northwestern University (2-9), the Gophers fell yet again, this time to the eighth ranked University of Wisconsin Badgers (11-1). Not only did the Gophers end its last three games with a 1-2 record, but Minnesota also missed a shot at the Big Ten championship game. The Golden Gophers ended the regular season with a 10-2 record.

“Bad teams, no one leads. Average teams, coaches lead. But elite teams, players lead.”

Minnesota Head Coach P.J. Fleck

Minnesota may have missed a Big Ten championship and a potential playoff run, but the Gophers had one final shot at redemption: a bid to the Outback Bowl against the 12th ranked University of Auburn Tigers, a top-tier program in the SEC. Head Coach P.J. Fleck knew that this game would be difficult. “I don’t think anybody runs the football like they run the football, and they’re so creative,” he said in a press conference a couple of days before the game. Fleck also mentioned how good Auburn’s defensive line was. “You look at the D-line, and I mean, it’s not just Derrick Brown, it’s not just him. They have players everywhere,” he stated. Going into the game, the Golden Gophers were one touchdown underdogs, similarly to the game against Penn State.

The game started on a sunny Saturday afternoon in Tampa, Fla. Both teams scored field goals on the opening drives. This slow start, however, changed quickly once Auburn cornerback Noah Igbinoghene returned a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown. After the Tigers scored, Minnesota received the ball, and once again, drove down the field, this time scoring a touchdown. At the end of the first quarter, the score was 10-10. 

Both defenses made a couple of stops to start the second quarter. At some point, one team had to break through, and the Golden Gophers did just that. Morgan and running back Mohamed Ibrahim led a 92-yard touchdown drive, also granting Minnesota a touchdown lead. Auburn, however, had a quick answer, and once again tied the game at 17. Right before halftime, Minnesota scored with a two-yard pass to wideout Tyler Johnson. Minnesota went into the locker room with the lead, 24-17. 

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The Golden Gophers celebrate its Outback Bowl victory, defeating powerhouse Auburn
Courtesy of Kamaan Richards via The Minnesota Daily

Unlike the first half, the second half would involve much more defense than offense, as both teams scored a combined 14 points. Both team’s possessions to start the second half ended in punts. Ensuing the Gophers opening drive, the Tigers ran the ball into the endzone, evening the score once again. For the rest of the game, however, the Minnesota defense would play at an elite level, holding the high-powered Auburn offense to zero points. After back-to-back punts and a fumble, the Gophers offense finally came to life in the second half with another touchdown pass to Johnson. With 10:26 left in the fourth quarter, Minnesota had the lead, 31-24. 

Thanks to a great defensive stand, the Gophers got the ball back with 8:04 left in the fourth quarter. The offense took time off the clock and slowly drove down the field. The most important moment of the game was a fourth-and-one at the Auburn 41-yard line. If the Gophers got the first down, the game would be in control. If Minnesota couldn’t make it to the marker, Auburn would have a chance to tie the game once again. Luckily, tight end Bryce Witham was able to make an incredible one-handed catch to seal the game away. The Gophers beat the Tigers in a thrilling 31-24 game.

Fleck couldn’t say enough about his players after the game. “Guys like Tyler Johnson, who decided to stay for his senior year, means so much,” he said enthusiastically. Johnson had 12 receptions for 204 yards and two touchdowns and was awarded the Outback Bowl’s Most Valuable Player. 

Minnesota ended the season 11-2 and finished the season as the tenth ranked team in the nation. Fleck is making history at Minnesota, and the Gophers’ rise to the top is just beginning.