For those of us old enough to remember the days of Gopher football before Glen Mason but not old enough to have experienced the glory days before Cal Stoll, the Rose Bowl has been the dream.
The 18 seasons under Joe Salem-Lou Holtz-John Gutekunst-Jim Wacker saw just 5 winning seasons and an overall win percentage of 0.370. This is the era that has put Gopher football into the category of a truly terrible program in the minds of the general Big Ten / college football fan.
Since the 1997 season, Glen Mason’s first year, up through the most recent historic season (an era that even includes the Tim Brewster years), the program has really risen to the level of mediocrity. Those 23 seasons have the Gophers with an overall winning record of 144-142. And over these decades there have been some rather good season. Mason won 8 or more games three times in a 5-year span. Jerry Kill and Tracy Claeys won 8+ games three times over a 4-year span. And of course PJ Fleck just won 11 games in his third season as head coach.
There have been 16 bowl games in this era and even a couple bowl games on New Years Day. But that Rose Bowl appearance has remained elusive. Not just elusive, but it feels unattainable.
Over this same 23-year time frame there have been 8 different Big Ten teams who have played in the Rose Bowl (note that 5 of those seasons, there was not a Big Ten representative due to BCS rules/selections).
- Wisconsin - 6
- Michigan - 4
- Ohio State - 2
- Penn State - 2
- Michigan State - 1
- Illinois - 1
- Iowa - 1
- Purdue - 1
Minnesota, Indiana, Northwestern, Maryland and Rutgers have failed to earn a trip to Pasadena (with Maryland and Rutgers only being in the Big Ten for 6 seasons).
It seems unattainable, but to be honest, the Gophers have been dangerously close on two different occasions. There are really 2 quarters, 2 disastrous quarters, that have kept the Gophers from that list above. And to be honest, 2 trips to the Rose Bowl in the last 20 years would be perfectly acceptable. Especially for those of us who lived through the 80s and 90s of Gopher football.
Is the rest of this going to be painful? Probably. But we are going there, maybe it’ll be therapeutic.
On a Friday night in October the Gophers (6-0) were hosting Michigan (4-2) in a game that would certainly have Big Ten championship implications. Michigan began the season as a top 5 team team and stomped on a ranked Notre Dame team 38-0 in the third week of the season. But they fell on the road at Oregon and Iowa to have a disappointing 4-2 record as they came Minnesota.
Minnesota, in typical Glen Mason fashion, was 6-0 but had not played anybody challenging. Penn State was terrible in 2003 and the Gophers rolled up 40+ on the likes of Tulsa, Troy, Ohio, and Louisiana. This was their chance to get a real win, move to 7-0 and put themselves in the driver’s seat for a road trip to Pasadena.
And despite the collective apprehension all Gopher fans felt, this game was all Gophers...for three quarters. Asad Abdul-Khaliq, Marion Barber and the freshman Laurence Maroney ran all over the Michigan defense.
The first quarter ends with a tentative 7-0 Gopher lead.
The second quarter ends with a 14-0 Gopher lead.
Then in the third quarter Michigan scores, but the Gophers responded with 2 more rushing touchdowns and carried a 28-7 lead into the 4th.
Apprehension and tentativeness was slowly melting away to excitement with a 21-point lead and just the formality of the final quarter. With how the Gophers were running the ball and controlling the clock, it would take a monumental meltdown for this one to slip away.
Of course, Michigan scores in the first minute. 28-14. The next Gopher possession is an Abdul-Khaliq interception returned for a touchdown. 28-21. And now we’re nervous. But wait! The Gophers get the ball back and Abdul-Khaliq keeps an option, running 52 yards for a huge Gopher touchdown. Back to a 14-point lead, a momentum shifting touchdown but still with over 11 minutes to go.
Michigan continued their assault, fishing with 31 points in that quarter and winning 38-35. For Minnesota rushing for 424 yards and owning time of possession wasn’t enough. But what really crushes a Gopher fan’s soul is that fact that this 15 minute period ended up costing the Gophers a chance at the Rose Bowl.
As things played out, changing the results of this game would have meant that Michigan, Ohio State and Minnesota would have tied for first place in the Big Ten with a 6-2 record. But having only played (and defeated) Michigan, Minnesota would have owned the tie-breaker and would have been given the trip to Pasadena. Holding off the Wolverines, who didn’t lose again that regular season and won the Big Ten, would have been that elusive, elite bowl appearance.
This one is a little more recent and it wasn’t a classic Gopher meltdown late in the game. This fateful quarter was on the front end.
As we all know, the Gophers came into the Iowa game with a 9-0 record. Having just taken down #4 Penn State and worked themselves up to #8 in the College Football Playoff ranking. A win at Iowa and the Gophers would have a 2-game Big Ten West lead with 2 games remaining.
A huge game that was following what was also a huge game. Was this game ripe for a letdown? It maybe wasn’t a letdown game, but it is fair to say that only one team showed up on time in Iowa City.
Iowa took their first three possessions for 212 yards and 20 points. Technically that third drive was in the 2nd quarter. Iowa opened the game with a very “un-Iowa” like offensive game plan. They kept the Gopher defense on their heels and Tanner Morgan was uncomfortable in the pocket. The point is that the Gophers very quickly dug themselves into a 20-3 hole that they couldn’t quite get out of.
The rest of the game? Iowa had a total of 86 yards of offense and just 3 points. The Gopher defense adjusted to the initial Iowa gameplan and dominated the rest of the way.
But what about the Gopher offense? Also a slow start, but this was more about finding points. They averaged 58 yards on each of their first three possessions, but could not find a way translate that into more than 3 points.
The Gophers battled back from that 20-3 hole but eventually lost 23-19. It was that first quarter where the Iowa offense was flawless, making the Gopher defense look hapless.
Assuming the Gophers would go on to beat Northwestern the following weekend, the season ending game against Wisconsin would not have mattered. The Gophers would have been the Big Ten West representative in the Big Ten Championship game and a virtual lock to go to the Rose Bowl.
Obviously those two specific quarters played out in such a way that the Gophers have not earned that Rose Bowl. If you want to break things down even further, one could argue that two trips to Pasadena comes down to two plays. Abdul-Khaliq’s pick-6 and Tyler Johnson’s dropped pass inside the 5 on 4th down at Iowa.
But through all the years of futility and not actually being close to the Rose Bowl, these were a couple of missed opportunities. Two trips in the last 20 years would be more than satisfying.
The real question is, will this goal be achieved in the near future?
Many of us have extreme confidence in PJ Fleck to get this program to another level. But as we know, that margin for error is extremely thin.