What's the best Minnesota Gopher football win since 2000?

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Anytime I think of it, I try to mention that Minnesota beat Iowa last year because I hate Iowa and it feels great to beat them any and EVERY time. But I'm starting to wonder if that game last November- Jeff Horton's swan song that will make me love him forever- isn't being talked about enough? Last year was a total gong show, with Tim Brewster having a job even though me and most rational Gopher fans thought he shouldn't, and then going out and proving why we all thought he shouldn't have a job as the team played about as poorly as a Gopher team has played since...well...maybe let's just leave it at that: they played as poorly as any Gopher team has played. AD Joel Maturi put him and the fanbase out of their collective misery with a midseason firing, handing the reigns over to interim head coach and OC Jeff Horton, who was like the 19th OC during the Tim Brewster Era (or at least it felt that way). Even though the standings didn't show it, the players seem to play better and more inspired under Horton, and it culminated with two wins to close the season against Illinois and Iowa, two teams who would go on to win their bowl games. After a long exile from anything remotely resembling a decent football coaching gig, Horton proved he could coach (while he didn't get the Gopher job he landed as the OC at San Diego State. There are worse places in the world to work than San Diego- like everywhere else in the world), the players proved they had some heart and some talent, and for the fans? We beat ****ing IOWA!

I STILL hate myself for not going to that game. I used "family obligations" as an excuse, only to get texts later in the day from my buddy Joe (who I was supposed to go to the game with) of he and his wife on the field and in front of Floyd. Just the look on Joe's face in the pictures was one of happiness, shock, awe, and a look of serenity that I can't describe but I know every Gopher fan reading this felt that day. Actually I can describe that feeling: it's called "hope". We haven't had much of it in this program in a long, long time. That feeling and idea that there's something better than six wins and a lower tier bowl, or by the time Brewster was finished, something better than a one win season. And the thought that we could actually win a rivalry game and put a trophy back in the trophy case. And what better trophy than Floyd? And what better rival to beat than Iowa?

So it's got me wondering...is this the best Gopher football win we've had in decades? At least the last 10 years? 20? Of course, the narrative for this particular game hasn't been written yet. If you look at it in just the context of Jeff Horton closing the book on the Tim Brewster Era in the best possible way, that in itself makes the game special. But I feel like there's something more at work here because the hope and positive vibes that game gave us have carried over to the new coach and the coming season. If this team does have far to go as coach Kill has been telling us and they only win two or three or four games in 2011, will we remember the Iowa win as fondly? Or if Jerry's the coach we think he is and he pulls six or seven wins out of that gorgeous stache do we look at that Iowa win last year as when things started to turn around for Gopher football? Or am I the only one that associate the begining of Kill's tenure with the Iowa win?

Where does it rank for you? For context, I thought we'd go back only so far as 2000. To me, the biggest win for Gopher football since 1967 (and keep in mind I was not living in Minnesota in the 80's for the short and bitter sweet Lou Holtz Era) was the 24-23 victory over Penn State in 1999. It was Mason's third year and the Gophers entered Happy Valley on November 6th at 5-3. All three losses to that point were at home, and they were excruiating: 20-17 in OT to #20 Wisconsin, 20-17 to #22 Ohio State, and 33-28 to #18 Purdue and some guy named Drew Brees. Now they had to go on the road to face the #2 team in the country and a defense led by future first rounders Lavar Arrington, Courtney Brown, and Jimmy Kennedy.

The Gophers and their defense were up to the task, holding PSU to just 360 yards total offense, and did just enough on offense (390 TY) to give themselves a chance to win. PSU led 14-9 at the half (Dan Nystrom missed an extra point) and 17-15 after a Billy Cockerham run (2 pt conversion failed) at the end of the third. The Nitts added a field goal early in the 4th to pad their lead 20-15 early in the fourth, but Billy Cockerham hit Thomas Hammer for a 49 yard TD pass to give Minnesota their first lead 21-20 (yep, another missed conversion). Penn State rallied for another field goal to take a 23-21 lead midway through the 4th, setting up Dan Nystrom to become a Gopher legend, booting a 32 yard field goal for the win as time expired.

That, friends, is a football game, and the best Gopher win since 1967. So while I wouldn't put the win over Iowa above that one, is the Iowa win better than any since that game? A few candidates to ponder...

November 18, 2006: 34-24 vs Iowa, Metrodome
Yes, this was Glen Mason's last season and also his last win before he got fired. The Gophers had a miserable start to the season at 3-6, which included an almost-probably-should-have-loss 10-9 to NDSU (at HOME!!!), an 28-27 OT heartbreaker to Penn State, and in between that should-have-loss to NDSU the Gophs were walloped on the road by Wisconsin and Ohio State by a combined score of 92-12. With Mason's hot season going up in flames, he rallied the troops for three straight wins to end the regular season against Indiana, Michigan State, and then a Pig win over Iowa.

While a win over Iowa ALWAYS feels good and always counts as a big win for the U, this wasn't exactly a world-beater Hawkeye squad. They started the year ranked 15th in the country, but ended it by losing six in a row. The Hawks outgained Minnesota 546-459 (for a moment there I forgot how bad some of Glen's defenses were, but now I remember) but 5 turnovers killed them. The Gophers would carry this momentum into the bowl season (I'm kidding. With a month off there's no such thing as carrying momentum into a bowl game) by losing 44-41 in OT to Texas Tech and Mike Leach (who still hasn't found a job but he's got a book out now), costing Mason his job.

October 5, 2005: 23-20 at Michigan, The Big House
At the time, I remember this being a HUGE win. Like YUGE. A really big freaking deal. For starters, it was the first time Minnesota had beaten Michigan to claim the Little Brown Jug since 1986 (seriously. And only the third time since 1967), and was the first time the Gophs had won at the Big House since dinosaurs walked the earth (or at least it felt that way). I remember Jermo's uncle Dave was at that game (we've mentioned him many times before, but for the uninitiated, Dave and his wife Linda have had season tickets since the Dome opened in 1982) and he could barely describe the feeling of sitting in a small section of Gopher fans amongst a stunned Michigan crowd of more than 110,000 watching the Gophers parade the Little Brown Jug around their field. Incredible.

It also boosted the Gophers to 5-1 (and dropped Michigan to 3-3. In some ways, this might have been the beginning of the end of the Lloyd Carr Era, as the Wolverines would finish 7-5- including their annual Carr loss to Jim Tressell and Ohio State and a bowl game loss-, then 11-2 in 2006 with the only losses to Ohio State and to that freaking juggernaut USC team in the Rose Bowl, and the 9-4 in 2007 with losses to Ohio State- duh-, Wisconsin, Oregon, and yes Appalachian State. Carr was then fired. Amazing.), and unlike past Mason teams where they'd ALWAYS start 5-1 or 6-0 against creampuffs before losing to good teams, this was a win against MICHIGAN (they had also beat a ranked Purdue team two weeks earlier 42-35 in double-OT at the Dome. I remember that game well) so hopes were high.

Of course, the Gophs would lose three of their last five to Sconnie, Ohio State and Iowa (who hung 52 on the Gophers at Kinnick. Gawd I hate Iowa) and then lost to Virigina in their annual trip to the Glen Mason Bowl Music City Bowl. So yeah, things didn't turn out well that season, but at the time? Majorly huge fantastic win over Michigan.

Wins in 2003 and 2004 over Penn State
I'm mentioning these but not including them for consideration as the Nitts were a combined 7-16 those years. Sorry but we're not THAT hard up for big wins, are we?

November 8, 2003: 37-34 vs Wisconsin, Metrodome
Halfway through the year this looked like another Barry Alvarez juggernaut, as they had just disposed of #6 Ohio State and stood 6-1 overall on October 11. Then the bottom completely fell out, losing five of their last six to #13 Purdue, NU, Minnesota, Iowa, and a Music CIty loss to Auburn. But I don't care, because just like beating Iowa for the Pig, beating the Badgers for The Axe feels great no matter what the records. And this one meant a LOT for Minnesota. A few weeks after the Michigan Debacle (the 38-35 shocking loss at home. Sorry to bring it up) and a loss the next week to MSU, the Gophs had strung together three straight wins to push themselves to 8-2. A B1G title was a long shot, but their first New Year's Day bowl since 1967 was there for the taking: all that stood in their way were arch rivals Wisconsin and Iowa.

The Badger game was fantastic and nerve-wracking from start to finish, as the teams traded punches all day. Minnesota led at the half 24-13, Sconnie stormed back to tie it after three 27-27, and the Gophers took a 4th quarter lead 34-27 on a Marion Barber TD run. But the Badgers weren't done as Jim Sorgi (who has made a nice living in the NFL holding a clipboard and watching Peyton Manning) hit TE Owen Daniels (who has made a nice living in the NFL actually playing and catching passes and scoring TD's) for a 26 yard TD to tie it up midway through the 4th. The heroics were left for Gopher kicker Rhys Lloyd, who nailed a 35 yarder on the final play to give the Gophers the win and The Axe. Great scene to watch the kick go through and Lloyd and the players sprint over to The Axe like they had just won the national championship. Why do I love college football so much more than the NFL? Things like that right there.

The win also pushed the Gophs to 9-2, just one win away from being assured a NYD bowl game. Of course, Iowa thumped them the next week 40-22 and it was off to Glen Mason's other favorite bowl the Sun Bowl, where they actually beat Oregon. So close. Still, what a win vs Bucky Badger.

October 14, 2000: 29-17 @ Ohio State, The Shoe
If you were wondering about the strangest year in Gopher football in recent memory, 2000 would get my vote. The Gophs finished 6-7, including losses to Indiana and Ohio. Not Ohio State- Ohio. Bobcats. MAC school. Some of Minnesota's wins? A ranked Illinois, Penn State, Iowa to close the year and yes, Glen Mason beat his beloved Ohio State. Someone explain to me how a team can lose to IU and Ohio but beat Penn State, Iowa and Ohio State?

ANYWAY, the Gophers may have began the end of the Lloyd Carr Era at Michigan in 2005, and they definitely had a hand in getting OSU coach John Cooper pink-slipped with this game in 2000. Before this game the 6th ranked Buckeyes were 5-0 with another stacked roster of future NFL draft picks, but Cooper was still on the hot seat for not meeting the incredible expectations that you get at OSU. Oh, and he also couldn't beat Michigan to save his life (or his job as it turned out). Minnesota helped give Buckeye fans their wish of a canned Cooper with a bend but don't break offense led by Tellis Redmon (118 yards that day) and WR Ron Johnson (who lit up future 1st round OSU corner Nate Clements for 8 catches for 163 yards). The Gopher QB that day? Guess. I wouldn't have know it without looking. Not Bryan Cupito, not Abdul-Khaliq. Answer in the comments. He had a solid day leading the Gophs to just 2 TD's and four Dan Nystrom field goals. The Gophs led 23-10 at the half, OSU got close in the 4th with a Derek Sanders TD catch to make it 23-17 before Tellis busted loose for a 20 yard score to seal it.

Best day of Glen Mason's life? Beating his alma-mater in a season where the OSU coach was on the hot seat and he just KNEW he'd be a leading candidate for the job. That was until he followed that one up with three straight losses to Indiana, Northwestern and Wisconsin before closing with a win over Iowa to save bowl eligibility. But it was not enough to get him the golden ticket to Columbus.

So there you have it. A trip down "Great games in Gopher history" lane that ended up being "Great games in Glen Mason" history. And you know what? While I agreed with his firing in 2006 and still believe it was the right decision, I need to give the guy more credit. In his 10 seasons as Gopher coach (1997-2006) Mason beat Iowa four times, Wisconsin twice, Penn State four times, and Michigan and Ohio State once each. I know compared with the success for some programs that might not mean much, but look at the coaches before him (post 1967 anyway) and Brewster after him. He had a few good seasons there in the late 90's and early 2000's, and I need to remind myself of that a little more often when his name comes up.

Still, I think we have the best coach we've had since Lou Holtz on our sidelines now, and I'm betting/hoping/praying there'll be a lot of big and signature wins that will top this list for Jerry Kill.

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