The way Minnesota celebrated its 27-24 win over Iowa on Saturday, it seemed like the victory should have been accompanied with a national championship trophy and a champagne bath.
Gophers’ Sean Hoffman and Karon Riley hoisted Floyd, the bronze pig statue Minnesota has earned the past three seasons, above their heads at midfield.
Adam Haayer flexed his muscles, pumped his fists and clapped his hands towards the fans at the base of the student section.
And Jermaine Mays tossed his receiver gloves — the same pair he used to haul in the game winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter — into the crowd.
All this, not for a berth in a Rose Bowl, but instead a likely trip to Miami for the Micronpc.com Bowl on Dec. 28.
“I told all those kids we’re going (to a bowl),” Gophers coach Glen Mason said. “I told the band, I told the cheerleaders, I told the team. I said, ‘I have some bad news, you’re not going home for Christmas.'”
No, the Gophers (6-5, 4-4 Big Ten) won’t be home for Christmas, but they will be very thankful this Thanksgiving. The victory marks the first back-to-back winning seasons for the Gophers since 1989-90.
There is much joy in Minnesota football land this week.
After three straight losses dropped the Gophers record to 5-5, Minnesota needed a win to become bowl eligible — and salvage the season.
But when the Hawkeyes (3-9, 3-5) jumped out to a 17-6 lead early in the second half on a 65-yard touchdown run by Ladell Betts, a fourth straight loss seemed to be in order.
With just over eight minutes left in the third quarter, fans started showing their frustration in the way of tossing foam Floyds onto the field.
The Gophers responded.
“On the sidelines you get certain feelings,” Mason said. “Even though the game was going as crazy as it was, I really sensed that somehow, some way, we were going to win the game.
“The doubt never entered my mind. Sometimes it does, but it didn’t today.”
Three minutes after the debris had been cleared from the endzone, Minnesota started to turn things around.
Gophers quarterback Travis Cole, who was an unimpressive 13 of 23 for 121 yards at the time, began to click. A 13-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Ron Johnson opened things up.
One of the referees originally called Johnson out of bounds, but after a group huddle, the play was reversed, cutting Iowa’s lead to 17-12.
After the Hawkeyes answered with a touchdown of their own early in the fourth to go up by 12, Cole and Johnson got together again — this time on a 15-yard toss-it-high-and-go-get-it pass in the corner of the endzone.
Johnson used his 6-foot-3 frame to outleap Iowa’s 5-foot-10 Benny Sapp and haul the ball in.
“We were leaving the huddle and I told Travis to just throw it up,” Johnson said. “He stepped back, threw it up, I saw it and had to go get it.”
A minute and a half later, Minnesota added the finishing touches and insured Floyd wouldn’t be heading south to Iowa City — much to the dismay of the Hawkeyes fans who made the journey up for the game.
Cole hit Mays on an 81-yard score down the middle of the field to give the Gophers their first lead — the only lead they would need — at 27-24.
Minnesota’s quarterback finished the game 23 of 38 for a career high 299 yards. 165 of Cole’s yards came in the fourth quarter.
But it almost wasn’t to be. Cole’s unimpressive start almost got him yanked in the third.
“There was a period when Travis wasn’t playing very well,” Mason said. “It enters your mind, ‘Do you make a switch? Do you not make a switch?'”
Mason made the right call and stuck with the junior.
“I kept telling myself, ‘Stay confident, stay confident. Keep plugging away,'” Cole said. “I got in a zone and things started to happen.”
It wasn’t just the offense that got going late in the game either. Minnesota’s defense showed up as well — something they haven’t done of late.
After giving up an average of 28 points in the second half the past three weeks, the Gophers defense wasn’t going to let that happen again.
By holding the Hawkeyes to just 14 second-half points on Saturday, the defense allowed Minnesota to stay in the game. Iowa gained just 46 yards in the final quarter.
Much of the credit can be given to defensive end Karon Riley, who set the school record for sacks in a game with four. As a team, the Gophers tied a school record with eight.
“(Riley) had his motor running today,” Mason said of the schools all-time leader in sacks with 28.5. “He normally does, but today he really had it running.”
Like all parties, Saturday’s Gophers celebration died down. In just over a month, there will be a second one on the beaches of Florida.
The Gophers are the sixth place team in the Big Ten, which would pair them with the Micronpc.com Bowl.
Micronpc.com Bowl committee representative Jack Westbrook said the Gophers will likely head to Miami, and probably take on North Carolina State.
But who and where they play, doesn’t matter. What matters is that the Gophers are going, and the football program which was dead a few years ago, is breathing consistently again.
Said Johnson: “We didn’t want to be one-year bowl team. The chance to go to a bowl game two years in a row starts a tradition.”
John R. Carter covers football and welcomes comments at [email protected]