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Minnesota Football: Reliving the highlights of the Gophers’ 2019 season

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The highs and lows of the Gophers’ first 11-win season in 116 years

Minnesota Golden Gophers beat the Penn State Nittany Lions Photo by Mark Vancleave/Star Tribune via Getty Images

Chris Autman-Bell’s game-saving touchdown

The Gophers needed a fourth quarter fumble to claw out a narrow 28-21 victory over FCS power South Dakota State in their season opener, but their luck seemed to have run out on the road against Fresno State the following week. Trailing 28-21 after the Bulldogs took the lead with six minutes left to go in regulation, Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan guided the offense down the field before the drive seemed to stall at the Fresno State 17.

Facing 4th and 13 at the Fresno State 20, Morgan took a shot at the end zone, finding Chris Autman-Bell in the corner of the end zone for a touchdown. It was a throw and catch that defies description, so I’d much rather you watch it than listen to me struggle to describe it:

Minnesota tied the game on the ensuing extra point and took the game to overtime, where the teams traded touchdowns before Minnesota was forced to settle for a 37-yard field goal in the second overtime. On the first play of their next possession, the Bulldogs had a receiver wide open in the end zone and quarterback Jorge Reyna fired the ball right to him for what was almost certain to be a game-winning touchdown. Fortunately, for the second consecutive year, Antoine Winfield Jr. was in the perfect position to snatch away Fresno State’s victory.

3rd and 29

The Gophers’ non-conference season finale asked the question: How many self-inflicted wounds can Minnesota overcome? Tanner Morgan threw an interception on the Gophers’ first offensive possession of the game, setting up a Georgia Southern touchdown drive to give them an early 7-0 lead. A failed fourth down conversion at Minnesota’s own 34-yard line in the second quarter handed the ball back to Georgia Southern in prime field position and they promptly took advantage, cutting the halftime score down to 21-20. The Gophers managed to pull ahead 28-20 in the third quarter, but then had a field goal blocked and returned for a touchdown to make it 28-26 after a failed two-point conversion attempt. On the very next drive, Tanner Morgan was sacked and stripped. The Eagles recovered the fumble and returned it 44 yards for a touchdown, taking a 32-28 lead with four minutes left in regulation.

This was it. Minnesota had played with fire in their first two games. They had done it again in their third and were about to get burned for it. On their final drive of the game, an incomplete pass, a holding penalty, and a sack backed the Gophers up to their own 6-yard line on 3rd and 29. On the brink of disaster, Morgan found Demetrius Douglas for a gain of 21 yards on third down. Then he found Douglas again on fourth down, gaining 10 yards and earning a fresh set of downs. From that third down play onward, Morgan was 7-of-9 for 90 passing yards, culminating in a game-winning two-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Johnson.

Tanner Morgan’s record-breaking performance

Coming off their first bye week of the season, the Gophers headed to West Lafayette to open Big Ten play against Purdue. Minnesota came into the game with a 1-8 record on the road in the Big Ten under P.J. Fleck, so the pressure was on to perform well, especially after failing to impress in three lackluster non-conference showings to start the year.

If there was pressure, Tanner Morgan was unfazed. In fact, he was near perfect, completing his first 14 throws and finishing 21-of-22 for 396 passing yards and four touchdowns. His 95.4% completion percentage was a single-game Big Ten record.

In typical Tanner Morgan fashion, he told Fleck after the game, “I gotta be better.”

The cold that broke Scott Frost

The Gophers followed their 38-31 defeat of Purdue by dispatching Lovie Smith’s Fighting Illini, 40-17, on Homecoming weekend to start the season 5-0 overall and 2-0 in conference play. But to maintain their unblemished record, Minnesota would next have to vanquish Nebraska. The Cornhuskers were the preseason favorites to win the Big Ten West, and had beaten the Gophers the previous year at home in blowout fashion by a score of 53-28.

With wintry conditions in the forecast for Saturday, Minnesota players were doused with frigid water during practice, the thermostat was turned down to the max in the mid-50s, quarterbacks and receivers stuck their hands in ice buckets between drills, and footballs were soaked and frozen. The Nebraska coaching staff opted against any such “gimmicks.” The results speak for themselves, as the Gophers ran roughshod over the Huskers, piling up 322 rushing yards. Minnesota led 34-0 before Nebraska managed to score in the fourth quarter.

But one aspect of the game in particular bothered head coach Scott Frost: The fact that, in wintry conditions, his players came out for pregame warm-ups wearing hoodies underneath their uniforms. He even brought it up two weeks later in a postgame presser after a loss to Indiana.

Casey O’Brien enters the game

Minnesota took care of business again the following week on the program’s first trip to Piscataway, swatting away Rutgers with relative ease in a 42-7 blowout that would have been otherwise uneventful if not for a couple of point after attempts late in the game.

If you’re unfamiliar with the story of Casey O’Brien — first of all, where have you been? — College GameDay aired a segment a few months back detailing his battles with cancer. The redshirt sophomore cancer survivor — now a five-time cancer survivor after a recent surgery to remove a spot in one of his lungs — was inserted as placeholder for the Gophers’ final three point after attempts of the game and was mobbed by his teammates after the first extra point, before sharing an emotional moment on the sideline with head coach P.J. Fleck.

Down goes No. 4-ranked Penn State

Minnesota had one last test before their final bye week of the season, welcoming Maryland to TCF Bank Stadium for a 52-10 beatdown that was over when the Gophers opened up a 28-0 lead in the second quarter. The decisive win gave the Gophers their first 8-0 start to a season since 1941, and set the stage of a showdown with No. 4-ranked Penn State.

College GameDay may not have shown up, but the Golden Gophers and their fans certainly did. The sold-out crowd at TCF Bank Stadium was packed with maroon and gold for one of the biggest games in program history, as two unbeaten Big Ten teams squared off. Minnesota set the tone early, with Antoine Winfield Jr. intercepting a pass from Nittany Lions quarterback Sean Clifford on the first drive of the game. Five plays later, Tanner Morgan found Rashod Bateman down the sideline for a 66-yard touchdown pass to give the Gophers the lead.

Minnesota and Penn State traded blows for most of the game, although the Gophers never trailed. The Nittany Lions were able to cut the lead to 31-26 in the fourth quarter, and had a chance to take the lead in the final three minutes. On 1st and 10 from his own 40-yard line, Clifford found wide receiver Jahan Dotson open on a slant. Benjamin St.-Juste, who had been one of Minnesota’s most reliable cover corners all season, was in coverage but slipped and fell as the pass was caught, allowing Dotson to sprint 49 yards before being brought down by 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.

But four plays later, Howden intercepted Clifford in the end zone, sealing the victory and securing the program’s first 9-0 start to a season since 1904. Fans stormed the field for a celebration the likes of which TCF Bank Stadium had never seen before.

You can’t win ‘em all

All good things come to an end, and the Gophers’ undefeated season was no different. Minnesota took their 9-0 record into Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, where the Gophers haven’t won since 1999, and found themselves facing a 20-3 deficit in the second quarter. The Gophers managed to stage a spirited rally from there, outscoring the Hawkeyes 16-3 from that point forward, but they came up short in the end, unfortunately.

Minnesota was able to bounce back the following week at Northwestern, defeating the reigning Big Ten West champs with a 38-22 victory in Evanston. It marked their seventh Big Ten victory of the season, which is a single-season program record, and broke Gophers’ scoring drought at Ryan Field. The Gophers reached 10 wins for the second time in the last 110 years and for the first time since 2003, when they needed a bowl game to notch their tenth victory.

College GameDay comes to campus

For the first time in program history, the University of Minnesota campus played host to College GameDay, who could not resist the opportunity to spend Rivalry Week in the Twin Cities for the de facto Big Ten Championship play-in game between the Gophers and the Badgers. The game itself did not go as planned — Wisconsin used a dominant second half to pull away from Minnesota and re-claim Paul Bunyan’s Axe, punching their ticket to Indianapolis — but the spotlight of College GameDay brought national exposure to the program that will pay dividends for years to come.

Tyler Johnson’s MVP performance

Having lost two of their last three games to end the regular season, expectations were low for the Gophers heading into the Outback Bowl, especially against an Auburn team that upset Alabama in the Iron Bowl. But Minnesota came ready to play and rode a record-breaking performance from Tyler Johnson to an impressive 31-24 victory over the Tigers. You could not have written a more perfect ending for Johnson, who was named Outback Bowl MVP after recording 12 receptions, 204 receiving yards, and two touchdowns.

His first touchdown was a ridiculous catch in the back of the end zone to give the Gophers the lead before halftime. That touchdown catch also placed Johnson atop the program leaderboard for career receiving touchdowns. Earlier in the game, Johnson broke the program record for career receiving yards. His second touchdown was a game-winning 73-yard reception that saw Johnson leave Auburn safety Smoke Monday in his dust.

What was your favorite moment from the Gophers’ 2019 season?