For Gophers football fans, hope springs eternal

It seems hard to believe sometimes, but it has been 30 years since the Gophers won six Big Ten football games in one season, the bare minimum to be in the hunt for the conference title. Given this overall futility, Minnesota fans have been conditioned not to hope for Big Ten titles – it’s too painful to miss out every season. Instead, we focus on the Big Three trophy games.

Paul Bunyan’s Axe and Floyd of Rosedale, the prizes for wins over Wisconsin and Iowa, have been regular visitors to the Gophers’ trophy case. The Little Brown Jug, however, hasn’t belonged to Minnesota in so long that it has reached near-mythical status for the Gophers. Coach Glen Mason said he has never even seen the thing. Sensational Gophers freshman tailback Laurence Maroney was 19 months old the last time the Gophers beat Michigan and took the Jug, back in 1986.

Most years, Michigan is penciled in as an automatic loss for the Gophers when the season starts, but this year was different. The Wolverines were reeling, having had their national championship hopes dashed by road losses to Oregon and Iowa. Minnesota, on the other hand, was surging. Minnesota was ranked higher in the polls, was 6-0 for the first time since 1960 and was actually favored to beat Michigan. For once, Gophers faithful believed Minnesota could beat the Wolverines.

Usually, this belief is the cue for the Gophers to get stomped, but for once it looked like the Gophers would win. Michigan looked flummoxed on defense and putrid on offense. The Gophers dominated the first three quarters, and when fullback Thomas Tapeh banged into the end zone, giving the Gophers a three-touchdown lead with just under 16 minutes to go in the game, I did something foolish: For the first time, I allowed myself to hope.

Wild thoughts ran through my head. Michigan was done for. The Jug was ours. Surely Minnesota could beat Michigan State at home the following week. Surely the Gophers could follow that up with victories over Illinois and Indiana, both terrible teams. The Gophers were going to be 10-0. They were going to have the inside track on winning the Big Ten title. For the first time since I started watching Gophers football, I believed.

I’m such a fool. What was I thinking?

The Gophers gave up four Michigan touchdowns in just over 10 minutes of game time, throwing away their 21-point lead, thanks to horrible players’ decisions and inexplicable coaches’ decisions. Oregon and Iowa beat Michigan by putting pressure on Wolverines quarterback John Navarre, forcing him to make bad throws. Incomprehensibly, Minnesota defensive coordinator Greg Hudson refused to take this into account, blitzing once in the entire fourth quarter. Navarre was able to sit comfortably in the pocket and pick apart the defense. Hudson refused to adjust his defense, and the Gophers threw the game away, along with the hearts and newfound beliefs of all Gophers fans.

There were other unfathomable coaching decisions, but the mistakes on the defensive side of the ball are certainly the most glaring, and were certainly the most memorable when I, along with many other fans, was physically ill the next day.

In my head, I know the season is far from over and, thanks to parity in the Big Ten, the Gophers still have a shot at the conference title. But in my heart, I know the hope of a new season is gone, replaced, as always, with the pain felt in previous years.

I guess I should refocus my hopes, as Gopher fans have to do every year so we’re not let down. What Big Ten title? Beat Wisconsin!

Jon Marthaler’s column appears alternate Fridays. He welcomes comments at [email protected]