For much of Saturday night, the Gophers looked in control against the Fresno State Bulldogs. Yet, every time Minnesota looked to be gaining momentum, something got in the way: themselves.
Minnesota needed a miraculous touchdown pass from Tanner Morgan to Chris Autman-Bell with under a minute left in regulation and an Antoine Winfield Jr. interception in double-overtime to save themselves from losing a game that they had in hand early.
“There’s a lot who did some things tonight that they don’t characteristically do,” head coach P.J. Fleck told the media about the turnovers and penalties. “They got away with it and we still won."
After quickly going up 7-0 after their first possession, the Gophers drove into Fresno State territory once again and looked primed to extend their lead. That was until sophomore running back Mohamed Ibrahim fumbled at the Bulldogs 33-yard-line to breathe life into Fresno's hopes.
The Gophers extended their lead to 14-3 on a Rodney Smith rushing touchdown with 4:38 left to go in the second quarter. Minnesota again was primed to get the ball back after a defensive stand. On third-and-22 in their own territory, Fresno came up well short of a first down. There was one problem: senior defensive lineman Tai’yon Devers committed a personal foul ripping the helmet off of the offensive lineman assigned to block him.
“He let the other guy get to him,” Fleck told the media. “It’s a teaching moment. It’s an educational moment. Nobody’s perfect. It’s a heated moment, but we have to keep our cool in that situation.”
Two plays later, Fresno State found the end zone on a 25-yard Jorge Reyna completion to running back Ronnie Rivers. The Gophers would hold a 14-10 lead heading into the half.
The second half would have the same theme for the Gophers: mistakes.
On Fresno’s first drive of the second half, Minnesota had seemingly forced a punt, but a late flying flag came in for a defensive hold, giving the Bulldogs a new set of downs. Fresno would drive down the field and convert a field goal.
The mistakes continued on the next possession for the Gophers, as Morgan fumbled the ball just into Fresno State territory.
Reyna would drive the Bulldogs down the field again and add another touchdown pass to his night. A successful two-point conversion brought Fresno's lead to 21-14.
Still the Gophers responded, tying up the game on the next possession. On Fresno's ensuing possession the Gopher defense forced the Bulldogs to punt and it looked like Minnesota had shifted the momentum. But, wide receiver Demetrius Douglas fumbled the punt as his own player ran right into him and Fresno State recovered the ball on the Gophers 38-yard-line.
The Bulldogs found the end zone six plays later and scored a touchdown to give themselves a 28-21.
The Gophers forced overtime with touchdown pass from Tanner Morgan to Chris Autman-Bell on fourth down with 46 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
“It was an elite call and an elite catch by Chris [Autman-Bell],” Morgan told the media.
The back-and-forth game continued in overtime.
Following an incomplete pass on third down, Fresno State was forced to settle for a field goal attempt. However, a flag for roughing the passer kept the Bulldogs drive alive, and on the the very next play, Reyna found Rivers in the end zone for a touchdown.
Minnesota answered with a touchdown of their own, forcing the game into a second overtime.
In double overtime the Gophers were unable to find the end zone, settling for a field goal, putting them up 38-35.
On the first play of the Bulldogs next drive, the mistakes looked like they finally had caught up to the Gophers as Reyna appeared to have a wide-open receiver in the end zone. However, a streaking Winfield Jr. got position on the receiver and intercepted the pass, ending the game.
“It’s surreal,” Fleck told the media about the interception. “He’s just an unbelievable football player.”
Despite the struggles, Winfield and his teammates never lost hope.
“We knew as long as we stuck together, we could pull it through,” Winfield said after the game. “We just have awesome leadership on our team. We were telling ourselves the entire time that we could win this game, we could win this game. No matter what the score was we knew could win it as long as we pull through together."