Answering to a sold-out crowd of 51,883 at TCF Bank Stadium, the undefeated Gophers gave fans a game to remember: upsetting then undefeated No.5 Penn State University, reclaiming the Governor's Victory Bell and soaring to 9-0 for the first time since 1904.
It's a victory that vaulted the Gophers into the No. 7 spot in the latest AP Poll.
“Our fans were unbelievable today,” head coach P.J. Fleck said. “That’s the best college football environment I have ever played in as a head football coach ... Those gold towels were everywhere.”
It came down to the last drive, Gophers up 31-26, with a little less than three minutes remaining. The Gophers defense needed to rise to the occasion, and Penn State's offense needed to drive 72 yards for a touchdown to win the game.
On 3rd-and-24, Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford was looking for Jahan Dotson in the end zone when defensive back Jordan Howden made a diving catch for the interception with one minute and one second to go. His catch gave Minnesota the win after two kneel downs, and the TCF Bank crowd stormed the field.
Thousands of fans took in the scene on the field, revelling in the biggest victory in TCF Bank Stadium history and the biggest home win since 1977 when the Gophers dethroned No. 1 Michigan.
The moment represented not only the biggest triumph of the season, but the revitalization of a program that has been dormant since World War II. Fans descended from the stands to celebrate the first victory over a top-five team since 1999, when fittingly, the Gophers topped No. 2 Penn State.
“When they rushed the field, that’s a moment I’ll never forget,” quarterback Tanner Morgan said.
What led to the fan-filled field is almost more intriguing, as the two heavyweights went punch for punch till the final moments.
On the game's possession, Penn State looked ready to strike, already in Minnesota territory. Clifford threw a bomb intended for wide receiver Justin Shorter, but the Gophers' Antoine Winfield Jr. was with him stride for stride, picking off his sixth pass of the year.
Minnesota's offense wasted no time taking advantage of the Winfield interception. Morgan found wide receiver Rashod Bateman for a 66-yard touchdown to give Minnesota a 7-0 lead over the Nittany Lions after the extra point.
“The guy just gets open and all you go to do is put it in his area and he’s going to make a play,” Morgan said of Bateman. “You guys have seen the things he can do with the ball when he gets it in his hands.”
Penn State answered quickly with a touchdown of its own. One minute and 15 seconds later, running back Journey Brown broke an attempted tackle by Howden and ran 45 yards into the end zone, quieting the sold-out Minnesota crowd.
The Gophers offense breathed new life into their fan base, going 69 yards and scoring on a 21-yard wide receiver screen to Chris Autman-Bell, making it 14-7 Gophers.
Penn State answered back with a field goal to make the game 14-10, and after a three-and-out from Minnesota, the Nittany Lions appeared to be driving down the field to take the lead. Until, Winfield notched his second interception of the day and seventh of the year.
“I had them all the way,” Winfield Jr. said.
Morgan, once again, took advantage of the Penn State turnover. After getting into Penn State territory, Morgan found wide receiver Tyler Johnson, who made a terrific one-handed grab and threw the defending cornerback to the ground, scampering into the end zone for a 38-yard touchdown.
Penn State struck first in the second half, as the Nittany Lions drove 50 yards for a touchdown on a 10-yard pass from Clifford to backup tight end Nick Bowers. However, they missed the two-point conversion, keeping Minnesota's 24-19 lead.
After getting the ball into Nittany Lions territory, Minnesota faced a 3rd-and-9 situation. Morgan found wide-open Bateman for a 36-yard catch and Minnesota took the ball to the Penn state four-yard line. The Gophers ran two plays in the wildcat formation with Seth Green, who found the end zone on a one-yard run to give the Gophers a 31-19 lead after the extra point.
Penn State drove the length of the field to get the ball all the way to the Minnesota four-yard line. After picking apart Minnesota's defense through the air all game, Penn State ran the ball three straight times to no avail. On fourth down, Clifford looked for his star wide receiver KJ Hamler, but cornerback Chris Williamson played the ball perfectly and swatted it away in the corner of the end zone.
In the end, Minnesota held off the surging Nittany Lions for the win, moving to 9-0.
“That was the whole vision, to be able to have that field swarmed on a top-five team in the country and to [keep] us undefeated,” said Fleck about if this is what he envisioned for the program when he took the University of Minnesota head coaching job. “That’s why you take the job.”
Tanner Morgan had a banner day. At the end of the game he completed 18-20 passes for 339 yards passing and three touchdowns.
Rashod Bateman broke the TCF Bank Stadium record for yards receiving with seven receptions for 203 yards and a touchdown. That was also the second most receiving yards in school history.
Next up, No. 23 Iowa at Kinnick Stadium. A win would put them one step closer to clinching a Big Ten Championship game berth.
“Trust me when I tell you, we are going to practice this week harder than we’ve ever practiced,” linebacker Carter Coughlin said.