MINNEAPOLIS -- Well, College GameDay sure was fun.
So, there was that. . .
Minnesotans showed up en masse Saturday morning to savor a rare Gophers football day in the sun. Well, not the sun, but the wind, rain, snow, sleet and wind, all elements that made it such a uniquely Minnesota festival.
Gophers football fans were granted permission to celebrate like this thanks to a 10-win season. Minnesota hadn’t won that many games since the early 1900s. So ESPN’s College GameDay came to celebrate with them, having descended on Minneapolis for the first time in the television program’s 32 years of existence. They were here to preview the Big Ten West showdown game that would happen hours later at TCF Bank Stadium between Minnesota and Wisconsin, the winner advancing to play Ohio State for the overall Big Ten championship.
More importantly, GameDay’s showing up told Gophers fans that yes, they really did have something special here when it comes to college football. Finally.
So there was this epic scene -- a delirious pack of humanity packed shoulder-to-shoulder in front of Northrop Auditorium, site of GameDay’s outdoor set. The Minnesota fans came proudly wearing floppy tundra stocking caps, big floppy winter coats, holding rah-rah Gophers signs, some swilling beer, and all of them dancing to a winning beat. Their team, after all, was 10-1. The Minnesota marching band played, third-year coach PJ Fleck showed up and was given a hero’s welcome, and venerable GameDay personality Lee Corso capped off their show by planting a costumed Gopher head over his, indicating that he was picking Minnesota to beat Wisconsin.
The crowd roared its approval. Gophers football had arrived.
Then, four hours later, they played the game.
That didn’t go so well.
Corso wasn’t right. Wisconsin won. By a lot.
The game, like the party that had preceded it, certainly started out nicely for Minnesota. There was a 3-and-out produced by the Gophers defense followed by a 5-and-out by that defense. Sandwiched between stuffing Wisconsin's offense was a 51-yard touchdown pass from Tanner Morgan to Rashod Bateman on Minnesota’s first chance with the football.
Minnesota’s second opportunity with the ball also looked like it was going to deliver points. But on fourth down and a long 2 yards from the Wisconsin 35, Fleck decided it was best to punt.
Ouch. Minnesota had an opportunity to potentially dagger Wisconsin with a 14-0 lead had it kept the drive alive. But Fleck chose not to.
Nothing would be the same ever after. Wisconsin got its run-heavy offensive attack together soon after and its quarterback, Jack Coan, did plenty of daggering of his own. The Badgers would finish with 173 yards rushing, 280 passing. Minnesota managed a measly 76 yards on the ground, 296 through the air with an interception.
The Badgers had plenty, the Gophers not nearly enough. Final score: Wisconsin 38, Minnesota 17.
"Congratulations to Wisconsin," Fleck said in his post-game press conference. "They earned it. They made the plays when they presented themselves and we didn't."
So, will GameDay ever be back in the land of 10,000 Lakes?
Well, Fleck took on a revival tone at the end of his post-game talk that strongly suggested that they would, that Minnesota would give them reason to be back.
Forget what just happened, Fleck said. Forget Minnesota’s long history of losing and disappointments.
This program, he said, is here to stay. They are a robust 10-2, he reminded all, and just getting started.
“We have proven that we have the capability to be whatever we want to be here,” he said.
And all of those tough memories from seasons past?
“Let it go,” Fleck said forcefully. “Let it go.”