Minnesota loses a game but shows it belongs

Everyone in Minneapolis and around these United States knew that the Minnesota Golden Gophers faced very small margins on Thursday night against the TCU Horned Frogs.

When you’re a 16-point underdog, it only stands to reason that winning a game demands not just a spirited and resilient effort, but one imbued with enough airtight precision to matter. Effort keeps teams in the conversation as an underdog; flawless execution can lift that team over the top and engineer a massive upset. Minnesota covered the first part of the equation against TCU, but it couldn’t take care of the second.

The cover image for this story, shown above, captures the moment beyond all other moments when Minnesota lost its best chance to win. The Golden Gophers simply could not afford a mistake as large as the one committed by running back Rodrick Williams. Fumbling en route to the goal line and giving away points like cotton candy to TCU is a request for misery. It’s a testament to the Gophers that they gave away 14 points (seven they set up for TCU on a platter, plus seven they denied themselves) and still allowed a grand total of only 23 points to the Frogs, losing by only six.

When you realize that TCU started one of its touchdown drives in the Minnesota red zone, the Horned Frogs scored only 16 points without an appreciable amount of help. If you had told Minnesota coach Jerry Kill his defense would stand that tall before this game began, he’d have signed up for such a performance.

It was the pair of fumbles — the score-denying mistake by Williams, and the Frog-helping fumble by quarterback Mitch Leidner in his own red zone — which Kill had hoped to avoid.

There will — and should — be frustrated athletes and coaches in that Minnesota locker room, and on campus during Friday. There’s nothing wrong with being upset after a big achievement quite genuinely slips out of one’s grasp. The hatred of losing, accompanied by the process of allowing the pain of “almost but not quite” to sink in, helps competitors improve. It drives them to weed out those mistakes in the future. Minnesota should allow itself to feel disappointed for a while.

When those 24 to 48 hours run their course, though, and the Gophers mentally turn the page so that they can focus on the rest of their season, they should be encouraged by what they did — and saw — on Thursday night.


It’s true that TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin and the rest of the Horned Frogs’ offense made a lot of mistakes on Thursday, somewhat counterbalancing the Gophers’ goof-ups. Boykin overthrew wide-open receivers on two separate plays that would have scored touchdowns for the visitors from Fort Worth. Yet, on a night when both teams made plenty of mistakes, Minnesota was nevertheless able to make TCU pay for its lapses. The Gophers scored on multiple occasions after TCU failed to land one of those knockout blows.

What eluded Minnesota was the ability to stack together consecutive scores. Each Gopher tally was followed by a TCU score, and with it, a lull for the Gophers’ offense. Yet, the very fact that Minnesota lacked consistency on offense made the final one-score margin that much more impressive for the Gophers. They showed the same flinty and resolute qualities which have always existed under Kill, a coach who has overcome health problems to lead the Minnesota program with distinction. The intangibles and defensive acumen brought to Thursday night’s opener will — if sustained — enable the Gophers to remain in the Big Ten West race through the entire Big Ten season. What you saw on Thursday will enable Minnesota to be Wisconsin’s equal in the weaker half of the Big Ten.

As everyone knows, the one question the Gophers must answer is this: Can Leidner become a quarterback this team can trust to make defining plays in the passing game — not touchdown passes when trailing by 13 with under two minutes left (as was the case versus TCU), but plays in a one-score game, when the defense knows the pass is coming? Minnesota entered this season shrouded in concerns about its passing attack. After playing TCU for 60 minutes, the reality is no different.

What IS different is that after entering the fourth quarter of last year’s TCU game trailing by a 30-0 score, Minnesota — given a year to plan for a second crack at the Frogs — narrowed the gap by 24 points. TCU could have thought, with considerable legitimacy, that a year of familiarity with Minnesota’s schemes would lead to an even more comfortable win over the Gophers. Instead, Minnesota made the improvements, and that’s what should give Gopher fans optimism… even though the history of Minnesota sports (and Garrison Keillor) suggest that the locals not get their hopes too high. They might be dashed.

A long road remains for the Golden Gophers. They must travel many miles.

After their gallant effort against TCU, their vehicle appears to be durable enough to handle the trip.


About Matt Zemek

Editor, @TrojansWire | CFB writer since 2001 |