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.
P.J. Fleck has 24 verbal commits for his 2019 recruiting class, per 247Sports, and that could mean his work is all but done. Yet there still could be some big news before National Signing Day in December.
Speculation is the Golden Gophers head coach will hold back a scholarship offer or two to see what develops in the coming months. Recruiting authority Ryan Burns from Gopherillustrated.com will be watching. “Defensive back and offensive tackle look like the two positions that they really want to address with these…remaining spots,” Burns told Sports Headliners.
Defensive backs Omar Brown from Minneapolis North and Jalen Graham from Detroit interest the Gophers, Burns said. So, too, do offensive tackles Joacheim Price of Algonquin, Illinois and Hunter Poncius from Buffalo, Minn.
Burns said Price might be the most highly sought after among players Minnesota is evaluating for a possible final scholarship or two. Price has multiple Big Ten offers but unfortunately tore his ACL earlier this summer.
Burns reported that Gophers offensive line coach Brian Callahan scouted Poncius at his game last Friday night. The 6-foot-8, 255-pound Poncius has verbally committed to North Dakota State but National Signing Day isn’t until December 19.
Under NCAA rules, schools have a hard cap of 25 players that can be signed to scholarships in a single football recruiting class. In the fall of 2017 Fleck also had most of his recruiting class lined up but added two offensive linemen late. They were IMG Academy four-star recruits Curtis Dunlap Jr. and Daniel Faalele.
“It’s always interesting to see what P.J. Fleck does in November-December, when it’s time to really make sure those signatures (Letters of Intent) count,” Burns said. “…With P.J. Fleck and the way he’s able to make a great first impression on kids, I am not really counting anything out.”
If one or more players who have committed changes his verbal pledge, that will open up more scholarships for Fleck’s class of 2019 that currently is ranked No. 30 nationally in the 247Sports composite national rankings.
Right now Burns looks at the list of 24 verbal commits and believes four-star defensive lineman Jason Bargy from Momence, Illinois could be the “crown jewel” of the 2019 class. Burns said the 6-foot-4, 255-pound Bargy might not contribute immediately but the prep senior has the highest “ceiling” of any defensive lineman coming to Minnesota since the days of Ra’Shede Hageman who left the program after the 2013 season.
“You can’t teach that size, that athleticism, that speed (of Bargy), and Gopher fans have been searching for that elite pass rusher for quite some time,” Burns said. “Well, once Minnesota is able to get Jason Bargy in here, given a year or two…I think he has the impact to absolutely be an impact player.”
Overall, what has Burns upbeat about the Gophers 2019 class is that Minnesota is going after and winning recruiting battles against other Power Five conference programs. Examples are Texas prep players Jacob Clark and Nnamdi Adim-Madumere. Clark, a quarterback, was recruited “hard” by Iowa and TCU, Burns said. Wide receiver Adim-Madumere turned down Alabama and Texas A&M when he committed to Minnesota.
“…P.J. is winning some recruiting battles that the previous staff wouldn’t even entertain,” Burns said. “If they did entertain them, they wouldn’t win them.”
Running back and Minnesota verbal commit Treyson Potts from Williamsport, Pennsylvania injured his ACL a year ago but is playing again and he excites Burns. A potential playmaker in multiple ways, Potts might be the successor to Rodney Smith returning kickoffs in 2019 or 2020. “He is extremely electric when he gets the ball in space,” Burns said.
Jornell Manns, a freshman wide receiver from the 2018 recruiting class, is being redshirted but he intrigues Burns who predicts a starting role next season. “That is my bold call. I think he starts over (current redshirt freshman) Demetrius Douglas.
“I think his skillset is very unique. He can be in the slot, (and) in high school he played running back. So you can have him potentially take some carries out of the backfield, but he is a very dynamic player when he gets the ball in space.”
In its bowl projections this week Collegefootballnews.com predicted the Gophers against USC in the December 31 San Francisco Bowl in Santa Clara.
Recent dining options for Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins include Jensen’s in Eagan and Murray’s downtown.
Head-scratcher: why is CBS sending its top NFL broadcast team of Jim Nantz and Tony Romo to Minneapolis for Sunday’s likely mismatch between the 0-2 Bills and 1-0-1 Vikings?
Superstitious: Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau drove the same route to Target Center last season when his team was on a winning streak.
Homecoming: The Minnesota United (versus Portland) will play at TCF Bank Stadium Saturday night in its first home game since August 4.
The United’s last regular season game at the Gophers’ football stadium will be October 22 and ticket sales are expected to go over 40,000 this week. TCF Bank Stadium has a capacity of more than 50,000 and the United is trying to set a new single match attendance record for Minnesota professional soccer.
A record announced attendance of 49,572 was established over 40 years ago at Met Stadium for a Kicks game. The Loons move into their new 20,000 capacity Allianz Field next year. See the promotion #50KToMidway.
No team in professional sports may eat better quality and tastier meals at its practice facility than the Minnesota Wild, now starting a second season being served by KZ Pro Visioning, the company founded by Minnesota culinary authorities Andrew Zimmern and Gavin Kaysen.
“We know that what you put in your body…is the most vital preventive there is. It’s also the most positive restorative there is,” Zimmern told Sports Headliners.
Zimmern suggested other professional sports organizations in America are more casual in both science and art when feeding athletes. KZ’s goal for the Wild is to hit all the right targets including glycerol, protein and calorie needs.
The food has to be right not only nutritionally, but satisfying. “…We look to food to fill us up many different ways, not just calorie counts,” Zimmern said.
With their knowledge and holistic approach, Zimmern and Kaysen intend to pitch their culinary expertise with KZ Pro Visioning to other American sports organizations within a year or so.
Both Zimmern and Kaysen are James Beard award winners. The connection with the Wild came when a player (Zimmern wouldn’t reveal his name) dined at one of Kaysen’s Minnesota restaurants and suggested how great it would be to have his teammates eat this well.
Zimmern, who lives in Edina, is famous nationally as a TV travel and food host on the Travel Channel. He grew up in New York City and participated in sports. “But then I got into 10th grade and I discovered girls and beer,” he said with a smile. “Otherwise, I would be in the pros right now; sort of like the Gordie Howe playing through five centuries with different teams.”
What would Zimmern eat everyday if he was limited to the same breakfast, lunch and dinner? With no hesitation he answered bagels and smoked fish for breakfast, mussels for lunch and his grandmother’s roast chicken for dinner.
Enjoy a Monday notes column on the Vikings, Gophers, Wild and MIAC.
Hysteria was rampant among Vikings followers after rookie kicker Daniel Carlson missed three field goals in yesterday’s 29-29 tie with the Packers. Among the misses was a 35-yarder in overtime that looked like a “gimme” for the 23-year-old kicker.
Carlson made a 48-yard field goal in Minnesota’s opening win against the 49ers a week ago Sunday. So he was at 25 percent on field goals as of this afternoon when the Vikings announced they cut him from the roster.
At his Monday news conference heard on KFAN-FM, head coach Mike Zimmer said the team will be ordering a physical for Carlson’s likely replacement, 31-year-old former Cowboys kicker Dan Bailey. He is an 88.2 percent career kicker over seven seasons with the Cowboys.
“We’ll see if we sign him or not,” Zimmer said.
The Vikings used a fifth round 2018 draft pick on Carlson, the former Auburn All-American. Minnesota made him the highest drafted kicker in franchise history. The Vikings were attracted to the 6-foot-5 Carlson’s big kicking leg and credentials that included the second best percentage for field goals at 50+ yards in NCAA history (13 of 21).
“That’s life,” Zimmer said. “I don’t know. It’s hard to figure out. You think you got a guy for awhile and then he goes out and misses three in a big game. But, you know, things happen, I guess.”
Carlson was 6 of 6 on PAT’s this season, and he never missed an extra point at Auburn. Conversions were an issue for 31-year-old Kai Forbath who Carlson beat out for the placekicking job with the Vikings this summer. Forbath only made 48 of 56 PAT’s during his Vikings career.
Forbath converted on 12 of 14 field goals between 30 and 39 yards last regular season. He hit six of seven from 40 to 49 yards for the Vikings.
Another change the Vikings personnel decision makers might be considering is replacing Laquon Treadwell when the offense has three wide receivers on the field. Treadwell, a 2016 first round draft choice, has made slow progress in his career. Yesterday he had his first ever NFL touchdown reception, but he also didn’t catch some passes including one that almost cost Minnesota the game.
The Vikings today signed wide receiver Aldrick Robinson who is in his seventh NFL season. He has played with four other NFL teams including the Redskins when Kirk Cousins was the quarterback there before joining the Vikings.
“He’s a fast guy,” Zimmer said. “(He) makes some deep ball plays, and Kirk throws a great deep ball as you saw the other day.”
The Vikings are the third youngest team in the NFL, according to opening day roster information from the NFL. At an average of 25.47 years, the Vikings rank behind the Browns at 25.19 and the Bengals at 25.38.
Only the Browns at 3.21 average years of NFL experience per player, have a lower figure than the Vikings at 3.49.
It was 57 years ago today, September 17, 1961, that rookie quarterback Fran Tarkenton led the Vikings to the franchise’s first ever win, a 37-13 upset victory over the Bears at Metropolitan Stadium in the opening game of the season.
Dan O’Brien told Sports Headliners redshirt Gophers sophomore safety and punt returner Antoine Winfield Jr., who already this season has twice been a Big Ten Player of the Week, was under recruited coming out of high school in Texas because of his short stature, maybe 5-foot-10. O’Brien was Winfield’s defensive backfield coach two years ago. During the summer of 2016 word came in from teammates during captain’s practices that Winfield was impressive for a true freshman, after being ranked only a two-star recruit by Rivals.com while in high school.
Winfield had an impressive 31-yard punt return and recovered a fumble in Saturday’s Gopher win over Miami (Ohio). O’Brien, who was part of the Jerry Kill–Tracy Claeys coaching era at Minnesota, is 3-0 in his first season as head coach at St. Thomas Academy.
Minnesota has won 19 of its last 20 nonconference home games, but only one was against a Power Five team. The Gophers defeated the Pac-12’s Oregon State in 2016 at TCF Bank Stadium. The one home loss came against No. 2 ranked TCU of the Big 12 in 2015.
The Gophers will make program history next season with the longevity and experience of two redshirt senior running backs—Shannon Brooks in his fifth year and Rodney Smith in his sixth. Are they the best running backs in program history to play together? No, that distinction goes to Marion Barber III and Laurence Maroney.
Jacob Herbers, with deftly placed punts inside the Miami 10-yard line, was the “Player of the Game,” according to Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck talking on WCCO Radio’s Sports Huddle yesterday.
Fleck indicated on the program he doesn’t expect quarterback Zack Annexstad’s ankle injury suffered in the Miami game to sideline him for next Saturday’s Big Ten opener at Maryland.
Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold, 66, had his third hip surgery last week and is planning a fourth.
As usual, the Wild’s fortunes on the ice will have much to do with the availability and performance of their well-paid two-some of forward Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter. General manager Paul Fenton told Sports Headliners that Parise, coming off of a sternum injury, will participate in the preseason schedule that opens tonight in Winnipeg. Suter, who missed the playoffs because of a severe ankle injury, might not play in the exhibition games.
“The plan is to have him (Suter) back for the opener,” Fenton said. “He’s going to be cleared here to be able to practice, so let’s just get him into the shape that he needs to be in. We’ve got until October 4th for him to be ready.”
With another school year starting, the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference reports that more than 7,300 students at its member schools are expected to compete in athletics and over 70 percent are Minnesota natives.