High Time to Appreciate U Football
The Golden Gophers football team is 7-0 for the first time since the 1960 national championship team started the same way. But let’s clear this up right now:
The 2019 team is not even close to as talented as coach Murray Warmath’s bunch that tied Iowa for the Big Ten title and played in Minnesota’s first Rose Bowl. Yeah, I know athletes are better today. I am just saying if you compare the 2019 and 1960 teams against their peers, there is no comparison in talent.
As a kid I watched all the home games of the national champs, a team loaded with good players and pushed to the top by a few great ones including Tom Brown. He won the 1960 Outland Trophy winner as the nation’s best interior lineman and is among the most dominating defensive nose tackles to play in the Big Ten Conference. Brown was a senior in 1960, while quarterback Sandy Stephens was a junior and would be All-American the next year and recognized as the Big Ten’s MVP. Tackle Bobby Bell was a stud sophomore in 1960, and the next two seasons would be an All-American, winning the Outland Trophy in 1962 and Big Ten MVP, and finishing third in the Heisman Trophy balloting.
The 2019 Gophers aren’t going to win the national championship. I will also take any wagers they will beat No. 3 nationally ranked Ohio State in a possible December matchup in Indianapolis for the Big Ten title. But before you get the wrong idea about intentions in this column I want to also be clear regarding something else:
Let’s appreciate all the positives about the Gophers so far. Dating back to last year Minnesota has won nine straight games (the program’s first-nine game winning streak since 1941-42), which is tied for the fourth longest winning streak in America. The Gophers are ranked No. 16 and 17 in two major national polls.
What an improvement over most of the Minnesota teams since the program last won a conference title in 1967. The 2019 team combines good talent, with a few superb playmakers, a motor that will not quit when things get difficult, and a determination to compete every Saturday. Minnesota has found different ways to win, sometimes rallying late in games, while other times jumping to early leads and even dominating against an old nemesis like the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
The coaching has been, ah, elite. Boss man P.J. Fleck and his assistants have encouraged an environment where not only do the coaches lead, but also the players. This has helped create the focus and consistency with which this team has performed. The coaches time and again have put the players in position to make the right plays. After timeouts the Gophers have immediately scored touchdowns in the red zone. At other times they have made adjustments during games to solve a defensive problem.
Thank the Lord offensive coordinator, quarterback whisperer and superb play-caller Kirk Ciarrocca changed his mind early this year about taking a job with West Virginia. Thank Fleck for firing defensive coordinator Robb Smith after the Illinois embarrassment a year ago and immediately replacing him with Joe Rossi. Since the 55-31 Illini loss, Minnesota is 9-1 and has allowed 10 points or less in five of those games. In the last five games the defense has not given up more than 300 yards, while Ciarrocca’s offense has produced four straight games of 400 yards or more.
The Gophers have five games remaining on their regular season schedule but are already bowl eligible. With a 4-0 league record, Minnesota is in first place in the Big Ten West Division. One more conference victory will ensure the Gophers a winning league record for only the fourth time since 1999.
The town is (gasp) starting to talk about Gophers football, including knuckleheads in the media. For decades the program has often been buried in apathy, but last Saturday’s game at Rutgers drew a peak BTN Network audience of 921,644 viewers. I guarantee most folks watching weren’t sitting on the couch to track hapless Rutgers. Fan speculation includes daydreaming about ESPN College GameDay coming to Minneapolis before season’s end. What’s next? Larger home crowds and perhaps even a rise in the pathetic student attendance?
Maryland is the opponent Saturday and the Terps, despite a 1-3 Big Ten record, might have as much talent as the Gophers. They defeated and outscored their first two opponents 142-20, including an upset win over top 25 ranked Syracuse. Maryland’s team speed and athleticism is worrisome to opposing coaches. The Gophers are likely to win Saturday but don’t bet your Halloween costume on it!
Go to Saturday’s game and fill up those empty seats in one of the Big Ten’s smallest football venues, TCF Bank Stadium (capacity 50,805). For too many Minnesota home games weather plays a factor in ticket buying decisions, but temps will be favorable for this Saturday. Too bad the Gophers weren’t under a roof for the October 12 Nebraska game played in rain and cold temps—they would have drawn 55,000 or more fans.
Rain or dry, this is a team to identify with. No passionate Gophers fan will forget the embrace between Casey O’Brien and Fleck last Saturday. The four-time cancer survivor was named this week’s Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week after being the placeholder on Minnesota’s last three extra point conversions in the Rutgers game.
O’Brien gave the keynote address on behalf of the conference football players at the Big Ten Football Kickoff Luncheon in July. He spoke about being thankful and how football helped him while he was battling cancer. O’Brien, who is a Big Ten Distinguished Scholar, was featured on ESPN College GameDay earlier this year and his story has inspired others across the country.
O’Brien is a Minnesota kid whose dad, Dan O’Brien, coached for the Gophers a few years ago. Casey is part of a legacy group the football public has followed even before they arrived in Dinkytown, including linebacker Thomas Barber who is the fourth member of his family to play for the Gophers. Defensive end Carter Coughlin’s dad and grandfather both played for Minnesota. Linebacker Kamal Martin, and wide receiver Tyler Johnson played at Twin Cities high schools, and safety Antoine Winfield Jr. has a name known locally because of his father’s fame in the NFL including with the Vikings.
Local ties add to the fun in watching the Gophers, but there are so many other players, too, that have contributed mightily to this 7-0 start including quarterback Tanner Morgan and wide receiver Rashod Bateman. Their recruiting stories are much different. Morgan is one of the Big Ten’s most efficient and gutsy quarterbacks today but didn’t have big time suitors coming out of high school in Kentucky. Just the opposite for Bateman, a four-star recruit, who was chased by SEC powerhouse Georgia but came North from his home in Tifton, Georgia, where he is making highlight reel catches for the Gophers.
Bateman is a candidate to win the Biletnikoff Award honoring the nation’s best receiver. Johnson is on the list, too. Fleck is being considered for the Paul Bear Bryant and Bobby Dodd coach of the year awards.
There is a lot to like about these Gophers, and the admiration goes beyond the field. There are over 110 players on the roster but Fleck has said none are in academic difficulty. The team’s cumulative GPA of 3.20 last fall was the highest in program history. And then there is the community service work the players and coaches do including visiting hospitals where they reach out to others.
None of this is to guarantee nothing bad is going to happen in the days, weeks and months ahead. Maybe a player will do something foolish and become part of a police report. If so, he should have known better because the program puts a big emphasis on being a good citizen—accountability, serving and treating others with respect.
The Gophers have navigated the first seven games with minimum injuries. That could change and lessen their chances before the season ends. They also have benefitted from a favorable schedule that is back-loaded with difficult opposition including top 25 ranked Penn State, Iowa and Wisconsin. It could also be that Maryland will be a handful and so will playing at windy Northwestern where the Wildcats, last season’s West Division champs, are struggling but coach Pat Fitzgerald will not allow his team to play soft.
But the whole point here is not to get ahead of ourselves. This has been a cool couple of months for Gophers football. Enjoy it for today.