“Here we go again.”
You’re not a Gopher fan if you haven’t uttered those four words before.
I’ll admit to having said them aloud on Saturday.
The Minnesota Golden Gophers were clinging to a 31-26 lead over then No. 4-ranked Penn State in the fourth quarter. The Gophers had led nearly the entire game, but with less than three minutes left to play, the Nittany Lions were poised to put themselves ahead for good.
On 1st and 10 from his own 40-yard line, Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford found wide receiver Jahan Dotson open on a slant. Minnesota defensive back Benjamin St.-Juste, who has been one of their most reliable cover corners all season, was in coverage but he slipped and fell as the pass was caught, allowing Dotson to sprint 49 yards before being brought down by safety Jordan Howden. The Nittany Lions were set up inside the red zone, with a minimum of four plays and two minutes to gain 11 yards and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
The stage was set for the kind of heartbreak with which Gopher fans are all too familiar.
The 31 fourth quarter points surrendered to Michigan in 2003. The dropped punt that turned into a game-winning fumble recovery for Wisconsin in 2005. The last-second pick six to Northwestern that snowballed into a five-game losing streak in 2008. The failure to score at the goal line against Michigan in 2015. And that’s only the 21st century.
If Gopher fans are Charlie Brown, Gopher football has been an apt stand-in for Lucy Van Pelt. No matter how many times the Gophers have cruelly pulled the football away at the last second, we’ve always come around to convince ourselves that next time will be different.
Well, that next time is now.
As you all know by now, Penn State didn’t end up taking the lead on that last fourth quarter drive. Four plays after being gashed for almost 50 yards, the Gophers intercepted Sean Clifford in the end zone to seal their victory, writing a new ending to a familiar story.
In his press conference after the game, head coach P.J. Fleck didn’t shy away from addressing Gopher fans, like myself, who surrendered to cynicism on that last drive:
“I’m sure there were some people on the final drive who said, ‘Oh here we go again.’ Gotta let go of all that. 50 years ago, 40 years ago, 30 years ago, 20 years ago, 10 years ago. We gotta change at some point. I think this team’s proven that, that as we continue to go into the future, we don’t have to keep saying things like that.”
If you think about it, Fleck’s “Row the Boat” culture is tailor-made for the Gopher because of how it relates the past, present, and future. When you are rowing, your back is to the future. You can’t see what lies ahead. The act of putting your oar in the water is to choose to live in the present and keep moving forward. With your back to the future, you are facing your past. You can’t change it, but you can learn from your failings. Failing, after all, is growth.
And while Fleck’s Gophers acknowledge the failures of the past, they’ve refused to succumb to them. With each passing week, this team has succeeded where countless other Gopher teams have failed. Just this weekend alone, Minnesota beat a Top 10-ranked opponent for the first time since 2000, improved to 9-0 for the first time since 1904, and claimed a spot in the Top 10 in both the Coaches Poll and the AP Top 25 for the first time since 1962.
History is being made right before our eyes.
And to the Gopher fans who’ve kept their oars in the water all these years, in spite of the trail of crushing disappointments left in their wake, your faith has finally been rewarded. You’ll never be able to erase the past, but the past does not have to define your fandom. Live in the present and look to the future, because neither has ever been this good in our lifetime.
So let’s agree to retire the phrase, “Here we go again.” Because these aren’t your same old Gophers. They have managed to lift the weight of at least 50 years of demoralizing mediocrity from your shoulders. The least you can do is return the favor.