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 two days ago against a good SEC team. Things seem headed the right way and the season-ticket base should be improved.
The PHS wrestling team had an outstanding second-place finish in a 28-team meet at Rogers on Dec. 28. Blaine won the meet and Princeton was second with Kyle Boeke, Landen Parent, Tyler Wells and Zack Wells all winning individual titles. Area schools Princeton finished ahead of were Cambridge, Becker, Zimerman, Rogers and Elk River . . . There was no better picture from the Auburn game than the one on the front page of the Star Tribune's sports section than the one that showed Tyler Johnson making his one-handed touchdown catch. It showed that his foot was in the end zone, not on the out-of-bounds line . . . Some of the national reporters (ESPN, Big Ten Network) went on and on about how long it had been since the Gophers had beaten ranked teams. They didn't have their facts straight . . . Ohio State should easily have won its game in the four-team national playoff. Btu a lack of discipline kept that from happening. The Buckeyes were leading 16-0 near the end of the first half and would have had that lead, or maybe even a larger one at halftime, except for a targeting penalty (and subsequent ejection of a good player) that kept the Buckeyes from getting the ball back near the end of the first half. Clemson went on to score twice in the last two minutes of the half and then won 29-23, an important roughing-the-kicker penalty keeping Ohio State from getting the ball back and then Clemson going on to score. Discipline is so important in athletics - some teams have it, some don't . . . If I were a Vikings season ticket holder, as I was for more than 30 years, I'd ask for money back after being subjected to a loss against Detroit in which most of the starters didn't play. That was ridiculous. The idea, of course, was to keep starters from getting hurt before Sunday's playoff game in New Orleans. Of course, it will look like a good move if the Vikings win on Sunday . . . The news of the death of Don Larsen, the Yankee who pitched a perfect game in October 1956 during the World Series, and is the only one ever to do so, brought back memories. I skipped a fifth-hour class as a freshman in a Mankato private high school to watch the end of the game and caught you know what when I ran up the stairs to the classroom. But it was worth it. Larsen had a 3-21 record one season with the St. Louis Browns before being traded to the Yanks and was kind of an up-and-down pitcher (81-91 career). But he had a decent career ERA of 3.78 and was 30-11 the first three years with the Yankees. What most people don't know, and something none of the national guys haven't picked up on, was that he was a good hitter. He hit .242 lifetime (very good for a pitcher) and was at .255 before his last three years as a reliever with various teams. He had a year with 3 triples, had 3 homers the next year, and had 4 homers in 1958 when the Yanks again won the Series. He had years of .306, .311 and .284, and had 14 career homers. Yankee manager Casey Stengel, the guy who basically made platooning popular, sometimes had Larsen hit seventh or eighth in the order. One more thing: He married a Minnesota woman, a flight attendant he met on a flight from Kansas City, and they were married more than 60 years.
PRINCETON SPORTS MEMORIES
Jan. 7. 1965 - Steve Meixell, Rich Olson and Jim Lee were undefeated PHS wrestlers at the Christmas break . . . Ken Johnson, in his 10th year as coach of the basketball "B" team, had a 103-64 record at that point.
Jan. 7, 1970 - Kurt Homstad (103) and Dennis Alickson (154) won individual titles at a West. St. Paul wrestling tournament . . . Jim Rodge had 16 points and 9 rebounds in a 71-41 win over Pine City. Mike Barg had 12 points and Jerry Bergeron 10.
Jan. 10, 1975 - Undefeated Security Federal beat CHC in city basketball league play as Dennis Minks had 22 points, Luther Dorr 21, Burton Bartz 19, and Steve Odegard and George Sanford 12 each. Kenny Ruis (22 points) led Equitable Life to a win.
Jan. 10, 1980 - Alex Metcalf got two goals and Jason Boser one as Princeton beat Crosby-Ironton 3-1 on outdoor ice in Princeton for the first PHS hockey win ever. Brian Peterson was the goalie.
Jan. 10, 1985 - The PHS hockey team beat Chisago Lakes, 6-1, and Moose Lake, 5-3, to start the season 6-0. Dan Voce scored five goals in the two games . . . Chris Williams, Chad Keen and Chris Brown each won two events in a 98-72 swimming win over Melrose.
Jan. 11,1990 - Assistant coach Scott Backer was named head football coach at PHS . . . Paul Sather was averaging 23.3 points, 13.3 rebounds and 4.2 blocked shots for the boys basketball team.
Jan. 12, 1995 - Ryan Breitkreutz, at 119 pounds, finished second in a Hopkins tournament as Princeton finished last . . . Goals in the third period by Erick Sjoquist, Jeremy Miller and Chris Opskar gave Princeton a 5-2 win over Cambridge.
Jan. 13, 2000 - The boys basketball team lost 46-44 to Duluth Central at the Owatonna tournament but beat Owatonna 63-53 as Ian McVey had 16 points and 10 rebounds, David Myers 17 points and Corey Erickson 11 . . .The girls hockey team finished second in a tournament at Blaine, losing 4-1 to Cretin-Derham Hall in the title game. PHS beat the St. Paul Stars 2-1 as Katy Finstrom scored twice and beat Brainerd 3-2 as Finstrom again had two goals.
Jan. 6 , 2005 - The girls basketball team, after an early 27-6 lead, beat Monticello 57-43 as Brooke Karst had 21 points, Mariah Clarin had 15 points and 13 rebounds, and Becca Hass had 10 points.
Jan. 7 , 2010 - The boys basketball team lost 68-65 in overtime to Big Lake at the Princeton holiday tournament and beat Milaca 52-33. Taylor Murphy and Dylan Carroll each had 16 in the Big Lake game . . . The boys hockey team lost 7-1 to Rochester Century in a Rochester tournament, beat Fargo South 7-3 and lost 3-2 to New Richmond. D. J. Perez had three goals in the win over South.
Jan. 8, 2015 - The boys basketball team lost 86-84 to Grand Rapids at the Grand Rapids tournament. Brady Peterson had 35 points and 13 rebounds. The team lost 60-44 to Benilde-St. Margaret's as Tanner Kinney, who had 15 points in the Grand Rapids game, led with 14 . . . The girls hockey team went 1-2 at a tournament in Coon Rapids, beating Cambridge 4-3 in the final game. The team lost 5-2 to Totino Grace and 4-1 to Rogers.
Dorr is the former editor of the Princeton Eagle (2 years) and Princeton Union-Eagle (31 years), and has covered sports in the Princeton area for 52 years.