By Mike Gallagher
At 2:00 p.m. there were fans in the parking lot tailgating for the upcoming Gophers Football game, but it didn’t even start until 6. It may not seem like anything special to the USCs, Texas or Oklahomas of the world, but if you’ve been around Minneapolis, this brought chills through your entire body.
Never in the 27 years that the Metrodome housed the Gophers was there excitement like this. You could never smell the hot dogs, sit in the sun and have a beer, or see the anticipation building with the gathering fans in the stands.
For people that have been around this town and the lackluster indoor football that its college program brought, this was special.
As fighter jets flew overhead, yet another thing most Gopher fans experienced for the first time, the 50,000 fans who sold out TCF were in a frenzy. You didn’t need any more evidence of what this meant to the University than the tears rolling down honorary captain and Gopher legend Bud Grant’s face as he witnessed the amazing scene. The emotion, the excitement, the anticipation, the long, painful years of waiting that every Gopher fan felt over the endless struggles this program faced.
It was finally here.
“You know you try to make it like any other game. But on the bus ride coming down University, all of frat row, and just seeing that it’s a whole different era now for our football program and just for our team,” said junior QB Adam Weber.
Understandably, it took the Gophers a while to settle in, they trailed 10-3 going into the fourth. But they knew, as did the 50,000 in the stands and the thousands more glued to their television sets around Minnesota, that it couldn’t end like this.
“This place was magic tonight,” coach Tim Brewster said. “We knew that it was our night and it was our house.”
That magic came at the perfect time. An offense that had been in a slumber the better part of their last 5 quarters, suddenly awoke. A few big completions to Eric Decker and one Deleon Eskridge run later and it was tied. Fans wanted more.
“It was unbelievable,” said 82 year old John Charles, alumni and long time Gopher supporter who I caught up with in a local restaurant after the game. “The atmosphere was something I’ve never seen before.”
The storybook had a perfect climax. Senior LB Nathan Triplett, who had only one start and 40 tackles entering this year, scooped up a fumble by Air Force QB Tim Jefferson and got 52 yards to enjoy the eruption of the crowd and the Gopher sideline on his way to what proved to be the game winning TD. On the night, Triplett notched 17 tackles and his first career touchdown. He came from having one start to earning National Defensive Player of the Week honors for his heroics, and an eventual Gophers victory.
In the past, the Gophers may have found a way to let this game slip through their fingers. The last 27 years, they have let many opportunities to make something of their program go by the wayside. But they would not make the same mistakes of their predecessors on Saturday night. Fueled by 50,000 of their biggest supporters and a $300 million dollar symbol of what they hope will be a new, successful page in their history, they dug deep and got the job done.
Forget the fact that they didn’t play the most air tight game all around and that the offense was stagnant most of the game. This night was more about the most exciting thing to happen to this program since they won the Rose Bowl 47 years ago. As simple as it sounds, at it’s base, it was about making Gopher football fun again.
“Phenomenal atmosphere for college football,” Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said. “They’ve got something here that’s pretty darn neat and really special. I think it’s evident they’ve got a place where they can build something down the road and be a top-20 program.”
From the ground up, that’s where a program starts, with an on campus stadium, and now the program can officially begin again. It may not be USC, Texas, or Oklahoma, but with the way it looked in Minneapolis Saturday, give it time, because now they have the means to get there.