For Gophers’ seniors, playing in national spotlight is the culmination of long journey

Minnesota plays Wisconsin on senior day with Big Ten West title at stake.

Linebacker Carter Coughlin takes a sip of water on the sidelines at Ross-Ade Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. The Gophers earned a 38-31 victory over Purdue.

Jasmin Kemp

Linebacker Carter Coughlin takes a sip of water on the sidelines at Ross-Ade Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. The Gophers earned a 38-31 victory over Purdue.

Nick Jungheim

Over the past four seasons, the Gophers have won 30 games, but on Saturday, Minnesota’s seniors will try to win the biggest game yet.

This year’s senior day matchup will be the first time since 2004 that the Gophers enter a game against Wisconsin with ‘The Axe’ in their possession and this season’s border battle stakes are even higher than usual. Saturday’s winner will advance to the Big Ten Championship Game next weekend against Ohio State. 

“It’s a huge game and it’s really exciting,” head coach P.J. Fleck said. “Our players are excited, I’m sure Wisconsin is excited and who would want it any other way… It’s a tremendous end to the story.”

Few outside of the program could have predicted the team would have a chance to earn its first conference title since 1967 during this senior class’ time in maroon and gold, although this year’s success has come as no surprise to players and coaches.

“I remember telling everybody back in January, I really like this team,” Fleck said. “I can’t promise you what they’re going to do, I have no idea what’s going to happen, but I really like this football team.”

For Minnesota’s seniors, the road to this moment was no straight path, but rather a winding one. Under former head coach Tracy Claeys, the Gophers went 9-4 in 2016, the class’ first season together. The following spring, the program underwent massive change after Claeys was fired and Fleck became head coach. Fleck says his first job in charge was convincing the Gophers’ young core to stay and buy into his signature ‘Row The Boat’ culture.

“I still remember the first week I had the job,” Fleck said. “I literally didn’t go to bed for four to five days. It was just convincing people to stay, calling guys on their cell phones, getting to know them a little bit more. Everybody was just like, ‘Listen, I don’t know about this.'”

Among the most important players for Fleck was a trio of linebackers in Thomas Barber, Carter Coughlin and Kamal Martin, all three of whom are Minnesota natives. Barber, Coughlin and Martin have combined for 587 tackles in their four seasons with the team. Coughlin ranks third in program history with 22.5 sacks, one shy of Lamanzer Williams, for second place. For those three, playing in front of a national audience this year is a perfect end to their careers.

“This is what we came here for, to bring this type of attention to Minnesota,” Barber said. “We are all proud to be a part of it and now we have to show what we can do.”

Another Minnesota-raised senior, receiver Tyler Johnson, headlines the offense. Johnson has flourished in Fleck’s system, setting program single-season records last year for receiving yards (1,169) and touchdowns (12). He has a chance to break a pair of Gophers records on Saturday, sitting one receiving touchdown short of Ron Johnson’s record of 31 and 107 yards behind Eric Decker for most receiving yards in a career (3,119).

“I just think he has a good feel for the game,” sophomore Rashod Bateman said of Johnson. “He studies, he watches film a lot and he works hard. Me, being behind him, I want to run my routes just like Tyler.”

Of the team’s 13 seniors, none have been around longer than running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks. In fact, both played for Claeys’ predecessor, Jerry Kill. The duo has battled back from season-ending injuries in 2018 to power a Minnesota running game averaging 184.7 yards per game. Smith has rushed for 1,063 yards this season and ranks second on the program’s all-time rushing list.

The other seniors who will be honored before Saturday’s game are defensive linemen Winston DeLattiboudere, Tai’yon Devers and Sam Renner, cornerback Chris Williamson, kicker Michael Tarbutt and punters Jacob Herbers and Alex Melvin. If Minnesota can win two more games this season, this year’s seniors will match the class of 2005’s 32 victories, the program’s modern record.

“When you look back years from now about what Minnesota is, you will think about those guys,” quarterback Tanner Morgan said. “You’ll look at guys like Thomas Barber, Carter Coughlin, Tyler Johnson, Rodney Smith and those will be the guys that started it all.”

It is clear that Minnesota has come a long way since the last time they hosted the Badgers, a 31-0 blowout loss in 2017 which ended a 5-7 campaign. With ESPN’s “College GameDay” in town for the first time ever, the college football world will have its eyes squarely on Minneapolis as the Gophers’ seniors run out of TCF Bank Stadium’s tunnel for the last time.

“What a way to go out at TCF Bank Stadium,” Morgan said. “Those guys probably wouldn’t want to go out any other way. Just to be around those guys, the leadership they’ve had for the program, what they have done is absolutely huge and will never go unnoticed.”