MINNEAPOLIS -- Big-time college football has arrived in Minnesota.
The 17th-ranked Gophers had an resounding answer to doubts and questions on whether they belong in the sport’s upper echelon with a 31-26 upset over fourth-ranked Penn State on Saturday.
In front of a standing-room-only sellout crowd of 51,883, TCF Bank Stadium was alive with fans waving gold rally towels and their excitement going into the fourth quarter caused the press box to shake.
But there were shaky moments late as Minnesota’s 31-19 lead was cut to 31-26 with four minutes left, and after a Minnesota punt, the Nittany Lions were driving again before safety Jordan Howden’s interception in the end zone sealed the win with a minute left. The Nittany Lions had 195 yards in the fourth quarter, but were stopped on the doorstep when it mattered most.
Gophers’ players raced to the other side of the field to grab the Governor’s Victory Bell trophy, and fans rushed the field to enjoy the first win over a ranked team on campus since 1977. It was Minnesota’s first win, period, over a Top 5 team, since knocking off No. 2 Penn State in 1999.
Reservations had been held on the Gophers this season due to a softer schedule through October, but they knocked off a Nittany Lions squad penciled into one of the College Football Playoff semifinals in the opening rankings last week.
The Gophers improved to 9-0 for the first time since 1904 and won a game between ranked teams for only the ninth time in 32 games in program history.
In the here and now, Minnesota maintains a two-game lead in the Big Ten West and the inside track to the Big Ten Championship game on December. They will crack the Top 10 next week.
The Gophers had three interceptions and a plus-two turnover margin, with quarterback Tanner Morgan completing 18 of 20 passes for 339 yards and three touchdowns. Rashod Bateman set a TCF Bank Stadium record with 203 receiving yards.
Leading 24-13 at the half, Minnesota running back Shannon Brooks’ fumble led to a Penn State touchdown to make it a one-possession. Then the Gophers responded with a touchdown drive capped by Seth Green’s 1-yard touchdown run to re-extend a two-score margin.
Penn State’s fourth-quarter comeback came with controversy. It appeared the play clock ran out before the snap that led to Journey Brown’s 6-yard touchdown, but no flag was thrown and the play stood.
The Gophers’ 24 points first-half points were the most Penn State had allowed in any game this season. Minnesota also scored the first two touchdowns Penn State has allowed in any first quarter all season.
The Nittany Lions, with the nation’s second-ranked scoring defense, had outscored opponents 73-3 in the those combined 120 minutes this season, but trailed Minnesota 14-10 after one.
The Gophers success came through the air while avoiding Penn State’s stout rushing defense. In the first half, Morgan completed 10 of 12 passes for 240 yards and three touchdowns and nearly had a fourth if not for a slight overthrow of Tyler Johnson in the end zone.
Antoine Winfield Jr. had two interceptions — to build on his Big Ten lead of now seven on the season — and both picks led to Minnesota touchdowns.
After Winfield intercepted Sean Clifford on the first drive led to Morgan finding Bateman open for a 66-yard touchdown.
Penn State tied it, 7-7 on the next drive, with running back Journey Brown’s 45-yard touchdown run — the biggest rushing score Minnesota has given up this season.
Morgan then found Chris Autman-Bell on a tunnel screen for a 21-yard touchdown to take a 14-7 lead Minnesota wouldn’t give up.
Winfield’s second interception was aided by linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin pressure in Clifford’s face.
Morgan then found Johnson for a 38-yard touchdown and a 21-10 lead.