I was faced with a fruitless endeavor on Saturday afternoon while covering Osakis’ state football game against Barnesville.
Every time there is a big Minnesota sports event at the same time I’m working, I try to set the DVR and make sure I don’t hear a score so I can watch the game late at night. That wasn’t possible in Moorhead. Not with the University of Minnesota football team playing what was likely the biggest game of my lifetime against fellow unbeaten Penn State.
It was not long into Osakis’ game with the Trojans that the PA announcer gave a score. The Gophers were leading and off to a fast start, and the crowd erupted with cheers. At that point, I just accepted reality that I was going to know the outcome before I left for home.
Generally, that would mean I would check out some highlights and not bother watching the game. This was different. The Gophers do not often have big games like this in November. In those rare chances they did, things haven’t ended well. I had to see how this happened.
I sat down at about 9:30 on Saturday night and watched the game in full and it is pretty startling how different this team looks from other Gophers teams that have shown promise in the past.
I did not have much of an opinion either way on P.J. Fleck when he took over as head coach in 2017. Truthfully, I had become apathetic with this program. With any coach that would have been hired at that time, my approach was that I’ll believe it when I see it with the Gophers.
Realistically, it doesn’t matter what I or any fan thinks about Fleck’s energetic approach to coaching. The only thing that really matters is do his players believe in him? It seems so abundantly clear now that the answer to that is an emphatic yes.
The way the Gophers hit Penn State in the mouth right off the bat was telling. I wondered if the Nittany Lions might jump on Minnesota by a couple scores and kill all the buzz in a sold-out stadium. Instead, Antoine Winfield Jr. gets an opening interception. Rashad Bateman scores a long touchdown, and the place is going crazy. Play after big play, it became more clear that any feeling of doubt that fans might have had about the Gophers being able to compete with Penn State was not shared by Minnesota players.
That’s what stood out to me about this win. It didn’t feel like a fluke. The Gophers have legit players on this team who can compete against the best teams in the Big Ten (minus Ohio State? Hopefully they can find out in the conference title game).
Bateman and Tyler Johnson are stars at the receiver position. Rodney Smith, Mohamed Ibrahim and Shannon Brooks form a great running back group behind a solid offensive line. Winfield Jr. is a complete difference-maker in the secondary.
Then there’s Tanner Morgan. His overall numbers this year are impressive -- 21 touchdowns, 4 interceptions and 2,100 yards on 67.9% passing (131-of-193). Morgan had looked good all season, but the way he played against Penn State was the turning point for me in really believing in him as the big-time quarterback the Gophers have looked for for years.
Morgan played the best game of his career in the biggest game of his career, throwing for 339 yards and three touchdowns on 18-of-20 passing. His ball to Bateman on the first touchdown of the day, and the touch he showed on hitting Johnson for the one-handed touchdown catch were throws Minnesota fans haven’t seen from a quarterback in decades.
The Gophers might win out and play in the Big Ten Championship game. They also might lose to a good Iowa team on the road this Saturday and end up 10-2 after the regular season and miss out on the West Division championship with a loss to Wisconsin.
That wouldn’t all of a sudden make this season a failure. This isn’t the same old Gophers. There is talent on this team that stands out. There is a coach in place who seems capable of hitting all the right buttons with guys who want to play for him.
That sets the program up well, both now and in the future. Maybe, just maybe, there will be plenty more big games in the coming years like the one fans witnessed against Penn State.