Gophers’ magical season takes a big hit

The Gophers’ football team will be idle for awhile after missing out on next weekend’s Big Ten Conference championship with Saturday’s 38-17 loss at home Saturday to Wisconsin. (Photo by Jesse Johnson, USA TODAY Sports)

By Ray Richardson

After the University of Minnesota football team scored on a 51-yard touchdown pass on the Gophers’ second play from scrimmage, it didn’t take long for a harsh reality to set in at chilly TCF Stadium.

Wisconsin was simply the better, stronger and more talented team on the Gophers’ home field. Shaking off the initial shock of the Gophers’ early touchdown, the Badgers regrouped and rolled to a convincing 38-17 victory before a sellout crowd that braved windy and snowy conditions throughout the game.

The No. 12 Badgers (10-2, 7-2 Big Ten) essentially ended hopes of a magical finish for the eighth-ranked Gophers (10-2, 7-2 Big Ten), who missed out on the opportunity to play in the school’s first Big Ten championship game. The Badgers get the honor to play top-ranked Ohio State (12-0, 9-0 Big Ten) next Saturday in Indianapolis for the Big Ten title.

Had the Gophers won Saturday, the win would have put them in a solid position to earn a bid to the New Year’s Day Rose Bowl classic in Pasadena, Calif. — even if they lost to Ohio State. Just getting to the Big Ten title game would have been enough for the Rose Bowl organizing committee to give the Gophers serious consideration. The Gophers, who have not been to the Rose Bowl since 1961, will likely have to wait until next season to make a run at one of college football’s most celebrated post-season events.

Saturday’s loss severely diminishes the Gophers’ Rose Bowl chances. The Gophers, who still have generated perhaps the most successful season in the school’s history, will certainly attract attention for a major bowl but that post-season honor will be more of a consolation prize. The Rose Bowl was the marquee move the Gophers were hoping to make, but that dream ended with a precision performance by the Badgers.

After Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan connected with wide receiver Justin Bateman for a 51-yard touchdown pass to give the Gophers a 7-0 lead, the Badgers outscored the Gophers 31-3. The game shifted quickly. On the Gophers’ next five possessions, they gave the ball to the Badgers on four punts and an interception. The Badgers took advantage of the Gophers’ troubles on offense to take a 10-7 lead at halftime, and the domination continued throughout the second half.

Gophers coach P.J. Fleck has done an impressive job in raising the national profile of the program. The Gophers were mentioned in scenarios for the college football playoffs, which were only a possibility if they defeated the Badgers and Ohio State. The Gophers also earned rare national exposure as the season progressed. For the first time in school history, ESPN brought its “College Football GameDay” program to Minneapolis to add to the hype of Saturday’s game. The ESPN broadcast crew did the show on the University of Minnesota campus at Northrop Mall.

In spite of all the unprecedented national attention, Fleck has a busy offseason awaiting him. Losing to the Badgers should have reinforced to him that he needs to get stronger and more physical on the offensive and defensive lines to help control tempo. Badgers quarterback Jack Coan had a relatively easy time finding receivers on clutch plays, the result of a limited pass rush by the Gophers. And the Gophers’ offensive line had trouble protecting Morgan most of the game.

The Gophers have had a wonderful season so far, but Saturday’s outcome is a disappointing reminder that the program is not quite ready for prime time status with major college football’s elite programs.

But Fleck has accomplished something previous Gophers coaches failed to do. At least Fleck has the Gophers on the doorstep to notoriety and contention for a Big Ten title. The other guys can’t say that.

Ray Richardson can be reached at rayrich@kmojfm.com or rayrich55@gmail.com