By Ray Richardson
The hundreds of University of Minnesota students who stormed the TCF Stadium field Saturday were not born when Prince recorded his hit song “1999” in 1982. They also were not around when Kool & The Gang had a hit song called “Celebration” in 1980.
Both of the songs were timeless and appropriate after the Gophers’ football team held off fifth-ranked Penn State for a 31-26 victory that made the country officially take notice of an upstart program.
Someone handling game operations for the Gophers athletics department had the foresight to crank up Prince and Kool & The Gang on the stadium sound system as a large chunk of the sellout crowd of 51,883 pushed their way past security guards to celebrate with their favorite football team.
Yes, it was a festive post-game celebration and they partied at mid-field like it was 1999.
“This was a historic win for us,” Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said.
The legitimacy tag is no longer out of reach for Gophers football. Saturday’s win over previously unbeaten Penn State (8-1) should quiet the non-believers and keep the Gophers in discussions when people around the country talk about premier programs. And when folks are talking, it’s very possible a lot of talented high school players, players the Gophers have had trouble attracting for decades, will be listening a little more intently when Fleck and his staff make their recruiting pitches.
The Gophers are 9-0 for the first time since 1904 and remained atop the Big Ten Conference West Division at 6-0 — their first 6-0 start in the Big Ten since 1961. The Gophers have also won 11 straight games dating back to the 2018 season. In Fleck’s three seasons in Minnesota, the Gophers are 21-13 overall.
With the shine getting brighter each week surrounding Gophers football, there will be more accolades, more acceptance as an NCAA Division I power and more challenges. As much as Saturday’s win represents a program-changer, beating Penn State won’t mean much if the Gophers don’t continue to handle their business next Saturday at Iowa.
“As soon as tomorrow comes, we move past what we did today and put all of our focus on the next game,” Gophers defensive end Carter Coughlin said. “That’s how we’ve done it all season. Each week we try to be 1-0.”
The Gophers kept themselves in position for a run at the Big Ten championship and a potential bowl game on New Year’s Day. It’s been awhile since Gophers supporters could speculate about such things. But here we are — searching for seats on the Gophers’ bandwagon to get a ride to unchartered territory. Winning does that for a program, particularly key wins over a traditional power such as Penn State and on national television.
Most of the country started off their Saturday morning to get a peek at the Gophers before turning their attention to college football’s “other” blockbuster game — No. 1 LSU at No. 2 Alabama. The preliminary blockbuster was a very nice lead-in.
Sophomore cornerback Jordan Howden spared Gophers Nation from heartache when he intercepted Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford in the end zone with 1:01 left in the game. Trailing by five, Penn State was driving to a potential game-winning score and had a first-and-10 at the Gophers’ 11 with 1:56 left. Three plays later, Howden dove in front of Penn State wide receiver KJ Hamler to make the interception five yards in the end zone.
Before Howden’s interception, there were unsettling feelings in Gophers Nation that Penn State was going to steal a win and generate obvious conjecture that the Gophers are not ready for prime time.
“All that stuff about the program in the past has no impact on us at all,” Fleck said to reporters after the game. “We’re building a new culture here and that’s all that matters to us.”
At the moment, the building blocks in a resurgent Gophers football program appears to have a strong foundation.
Ray Richardson can be reached at email@example.com