Gophers Lost ‘The Juice’ 50 Years Ago
Golden Gophers football then and now in today’s column. Read on for a history lesson, and also insight about Saturday’s game against Maryland.
It was 50 years ago today, September 21, 1968, that Minnesota lost to USC in one of the grand games in Gopher football history. The buildup and hype to the game at old Memorial Stadium on the Minnesota campus was extraordinary. The Trojans were college football’s defending national champions. The Gophers had shared the 1967 Big Ten title with Indiana and Purdue.
USC was a glamour team featuring senior All-American halfback O.J. Simpson who would go on to win the 1968 Heisman Trophy. Yes, for those who need a history lesson, the same Orenthal James Simpson—nicknamed the “Juice” for his orange juice-like initials—that was charged in 1994 with killing his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson.
Minnesota had talented players, too, including All-American defensive end Bob Stein. USC’s John McKay was a national championship coach and Minnesota’s Murray Warmath had coached the Gophers to the 1960 national title.
In the weeks leading up to the game there was a buzz around town seldom seen with Gophers football before or since. It was Minnesota’s opener and the game drew a crowd of 60,820 crazed fans to Dinkytown. It would be the largest crowd at Memorial Stadium until the Gophers abandoned the “Brick House” after the 1981 season and moved into the Metrodome.
Warmath was known from International Falls to Austin as a defensive authority and military-like taskmaster. Stop the other team. Gain field position with a strong punting game. Don’t make mistakes. If you’re worried about the offense screwing up, punt the ball on third down and let the defense take over winning the game.
Warmath, then 55, had been the Golden Gophers head coach since 1954. Before that he was head coach for two seasons at Mississippi State. This assignment of stopping Simpson and USC was hardly his first “rodeo.”
Sometime during the offseason of 1968 Warmath got an unusual idea. He decided to let the grass at Memorial Stadium grow long in an attempt to slow down Simpson who not only was powerfully built but had track star speed.
How long was long? “Unusually long,” said former Minnesota offensive tackle Ezell Jones.
Fullback Jim Carter was a teammate of Jones in 1968 and also recalled the long grass. “It was deep,” Carter said. “I don’t know if it was six inches or what. But the problem with that strategy is, it didn’t work.”
The grass was long and the field was wet from rain, but the Gophers couldn’t do enough to contain Simpson in a 29-20 loss. Simpson ran for four touchdowns and had 375 all-purpose yards, according to Warmath’s biography, The Autumn Warrior by Mike Wilkinson.
After the game Simpson expressed his admiration for Minnesota’s defense. “Simpson praised the Gophers, saying he had never been hit harder than he was that day,” Wilkinson wrote.
Those who saw the game have enduring memories but topping most any list is Minnesota’s fourth quarter kickoff return for a touchdown that gave the Gophers a 20-16 lead. The play started with George Kemp catching the USC kickoff and starting up the field. Suddenly, with tacklers coming toward him, he stopped and threw a cross-field lateral pass to teammate John Wintermute who had an open field in front of him and a path to the end zone.
The play shocked not only USC but also Gophers fans who long ago had labeled their coach unimaginative. “That was awfully risqué for coach Warmath,” Carter said. “(Normally) three running plays and a cloud of dust was about as risqué as he got. Having a play like that on the kickoff was pretty amazing.”
The other day somebody recalled the kickoff play was copied “by every high school coach in the state,” and that they used it on ensuing Fridays. Whether that’s reality or myth, the memory of the play will never be forgotten by those who attended that famous game.
The 1968 squad was the last of Warmath’s powerful teams. That group went 5-2 in Big Ten Conference games and tied for third place in the standings. They could play—as they showed against USC—with any team in America. Warmath, with recruiting deteriorating, had losing seasons in 1969, 1970 and 1971, and then was forced out as head coach.
Between 1960 and 1968 Warmath’s Gophers won one national championship, two Big Ten titles and split two Rose Bowls. During their best stretch, from 1960-1962, Minnesota’s record was 22-6-1.
The Gophers have had nine coaches between Warmath and P.J. Fleck. None of the coaches since Warmath has been able to make the Gophers consistent winners in the Big Ten and therefore return Minnesota to national prominence.
Fleck was 2-7 in conference games in his first season of 2017. Tomorrow he takes his 3-0 nonconference team to College Park, Maryland for Minnesota’s opening Big Ten game in 2018.
The Terps are 2-1 and the results include a season highlight win over Texas and an inexplicable home loss to ho-hum Temple, 35-14. Maryland has that kind of a roller coaster program. Third-year coach DJ Durkin has recruited effectively but he is currently on administrative leave while the school investigates the football program’s culture.
The Terps are at least an average Big Ten team in talent, perhaps better. They were labeled before the season as the potential surprise team in the Big Ten’s East Division. The Gophers have an unusually inexperienced roster and are playing on the road for the first time this season. The game looks like a tossup—and a huge opportunity for Fleck and the Gophers to move within two wins of bowl eligibility, with eight more games remaining after Saturday.
Among the positives for Minnesota is the fan apathy at Maryland Stadium, formerly Byrd Stadium. Two years ago redshirt junior and walkon quarterback Conor Rhoda made his first college start at Maryland Stadium. “…It was not too electric of an atmosphere,” Rhoda told Sports Headliners this week.
Rhoda was an effective game manager in the quiet atmosphere, helping Minnesota to a 31-10 win. “After the first play I didn’t even notice the stands, or notice anybody out there,” he said. “It just felt like practice to me, which was a big relief.”
Rhoda completed seven of 15 passes for 82 yards and one touchdown in front of an announced crowd of 41,465. Minnesota’s offense was running game dominant with Rodney Smith at 144 yards and Shannon Brooks gaining 86.
Rhoda said going on the road changes routines and preparations for players. A first away game can particularly be a challenge. The task is only made more difficult if played in a noisy and even hostile environment.
Tomorrow the Gophers will send another walkon quarterback out on the field at Maryland Stadium, Zack Annexstad. Rhoda, who now works in sales for a Minneapolis tech company, expressed confidence about Annexstad’s first road start. As with other observers of Minnesota’s first three games, Rhoda has been impressed with the poise of the true freshman quarterback.
“I don’t have any doubts that Zack will feel comfortable after a snap or two in there, and he’ll feel just like he’s playing at TCF (Bank Stadium),” Rhoda said.
Rhoda has met Annexstad and also knows his family including older brother Brock who is a redshirt freshman wide receiver for Minnesota. “He (Zack) seems like a mature kid and he knows how to handle himself in a Big Ten environment,” Rhoda said.
Rhoda, who was one of the Gophers’ two starting quarterbacks last year, knows Tanner Morgan better than Zack Annexstad. Morgan redshirted last season and is now Annexstad’s backup. “Tanner has got nothing but awesome things to say about him,” Rhoda said.