Your quarterback, an accurate passer all season. throws an interception on his first pass that hands favored Auburn a field goal and a 3-3 lead. Then, with the score 3-3, Auburn has a kickoff return of 96 yards for a touchdown only 8.37 into the game and a 10-3 lead. It looked as though the rout was on against a team that was said to have a stifling defense, a team that had beaten Alabama and barely lost 23-20 to No. 1-rated LSU.
Three hours later the Minnesota Gophers had a 31-24 win in a game they completely dominated, the score not reflecting how dominant the Gophers were. The numbers tell you that.
Auburn had averaged 211 yards a game with its run game this season but had only 56 against Minnesota. The Auburn defense had given up an average of 117 yards on the ground this season. Minnesota had 215. The Gophers averaged 4.8 yards per carry, Auburn only 2.2.
First downs favored Minnesota 23-13 and the total yardage edge was huge — 494 for the Gophers (6.6 per play) to only 232 for Auburn (4.4 per play). Minnesota had the ball for 15 more minutes than Auburn and that was hammered home during the final 8:36 of the game when Minnesota finished the game with a 16-play, 68-yard drive that kept Auburn from getting the ball back. It was the third drive of the game for Minnesota of 10 plays or more. Gopher quarterback Tanner Morgan was not sacked by that great Auburn dense.
There were great performances by stars of the team (we'll get to that) but how about the performance of senior tight end Bryce Witham? Even ardent Gopher fans would be telling an untruth if they said they knew about Witham, who had three career catches coming into the game. His fourth was a fourth-down touchdown pass in the second quarter that gave Minnesota a 17-10 lead. His fifth was a one-handed grab of a pass on fourth-and-1 at the Auburn 41 that kept that final drive alive.
The star, of course was Minnesota native Tyler Johnson who caught 12 passes for 204 yards and two touchdowns, the final one a 73-yarder that came with 10:26 to go and proved to be the winning touchdown. A quarterback at Minneapolis North, Johnson made the switch to wide receiver at Minnesota and ended up with all kinds of U of M records for pass receiving. He made a spectacular one-handed catch for his first touchdown in the second quarter.
Then there was sophomore running back Mohamed Ibrahim who ran for 140 yards (7.0 average) and a touchdown, and got extra yardage on carry after carry. And you'd have to mention quarterback Tanner Morgan who threw for 276 hards and two touchdowns. The leading tacklers were Chris Williamson (7), Corey Durr (6), Benjamin St. -Juste (6) and Antoine Winfield and Carter Coughlin with 5 apiece. All but Coughlin are defensive backs.
Those are some of the stats and some of the outstanding players. But there's something else that stands out for me in Minnesota's two bowl wins in the last 12 months.
Last year, in the Quick Lane Bowl, Georgia Tech (7-5) was reputed to have one of the best running games in the country. Minnesota (6-6) completely shut down the option offense in a 34-10 win as both teams ended up 7-6. This year Auburn (9-4 after the loss) was said to have one of the best defenses in the country (the Tigers held LSU to 23 points, at LSU) and Minnesota (11-2) gained nearly 500 yards and dominated that defense from beginning to end.
Those two results tell me that Coach P.J. Fleck and his staff have been way better than those two opponents in getting ready for a game. Minnesota had a very disheartening loss to Wisconsin in the final game of the season, that one coming two weeks after a four-point loss at Iowa. But the team rebounded after those two losses, stayed on an even keel, and knocked off Auburn.
Take a look back at the first three games of the season: There was a 28-21 win over South Dakota State, a 38-35 win over Fresno State in two overtimes, and a last-minute 35-32 win over Georgia Southern. Those weren't exactly dominant wins and I don't think there's a Gopher fan alive who, after those three games, would have dreamed of a 11-2 season and a win at the Outback Bowl over No. 12 Auburn.
But, by Thursday morning, the Gophers had taken down Auburn and the big-name programs at Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan had all lost in the postseason, Wisconsin's four turnovers leading to a one-point loss in a game it should have easily won.
In the three years Fleck has been at Minnesota (23-15) he's been criticized for his rah-rah attitude and his "Row The Boat" campaign, with some in the media saying he's talked too much about creating a new culture. And many noted, truthfully, that the team didn't have a very tough Big Ten schedule this season. But it's hard to argue with results, which he has gotten. For now, anyway, it won't be quite as popular to take shots at Fleck as it has been.
I'm sure the Auburn win, right or wrong and coming before we see what the 2020 season brings, will cement in many Gopher fans' minds that he's the guy to turn the program around. His statement of "If you want to be a blue blood you've got to beat blue bloods" is a typical Fleckism. But it's true. Even Chip Scoggins, one of the Star Tribune's sports columnists, fell into line Thursday morning when he wrote, "They are legit, plain and simple. And they will begin next season as a Top 15 team."
Some in the media went a little bonkers after the win over Penn State, calling it the biggest Gopher win ever (forgetting, or not knowing about, the Rose Bowl win in 1962, the 16-0 upset of No. 1 Michigan in 1977 by a Gopher team that was only 4-4 in Big Ten play, and the seven national championships). But it WAS a big win and so was the win New Year's Day against a good SEC team. Things seem headed the right way and the season-ticket base should be improved.