Gophers Running For the Roses

If you're a gardener, the above headline sounds like a doomsday scenario, and potentially the basis of some solid slapstick.

But if you're a fan of the longtime Big Ten also-ran Minnesota Golden Gophers, it sounds almost too good to be true. And yet, head coach P.J. Fleck and Co. are essentially one victory away from a legitimate shot at their first Rose Bowl Game since 1961. With their decisive victory over Northwestern this past weekend, Minnesota improved to 10-1 on the year, their first 10-win regular season since the Roosevelt administration (Teddy).

The victory over the Wildcats marked their seventh conference win of the season, the most in school history, and set up a collision course with Wisconsin next week. The battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe will also serve as the de-facto Big Ten West championship game, with the winner securing a date with Ohio State for the conference championship. While the likelihood of either team taking down the dominant Buckeyes appears low, the loser of the Big Ten title game will still have a chance of making it to Pasadena, assuming Ohio State will be included in the College Football Playoff.

Should Wisconsin advance to the conference championship and lose, the door to the Rose Bowl could reopen for two-loss Penn State, assuming their entire team doesn't get hit by an asteroid, the only conceivable scenario in which they will not beat Rutgers in their final game of the season. But if Minnesota can defeat Wisconsin, at least hang with Ohio State, and finish the year at 11-2, they would be the clear favorites for a Rose Bowl birth by virtue of their head-to-head victory over the Nittany Lions.

So how did the Golden Gophers get to this point? According to Fleck, it began in January with a players only meeting called by starting quarterback Tanner Morgan. The topic of the meeting was expectations for the coming season, and the bar was set high. Multiple team leaders say the meeting galvanized the squad, and set the stage for their 9-0 start to the season.

Minnesota suffered their first defeat of the year at the hands of an always tough Iowa team in Des Moines in week 11, but were confident following a 16-point win this weekend, following a week in which Morgan was unable to practice until Wednesday after being placed in the concussion protocol following big hits at the hands of the Hawkeyes.

Morgan has been a revelation in his sophomore season in Minneapolis, with a school-record 26 touchdown passes and a 187.2 quarterback rating through 11 games. Top targets Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman have both eclipsed 1,000 yards receiving; the first time in program history the team has had two players pass that mark. Johnson, a senior, also had over 1,000 yards receiving last year, and needs just 107 yards to surpass Eric Decker as the school's all-time leader.

Fifth-year senior running back Rodney Smith has surpassed 1,000 yards rushing for the second time in his illustrious Gophers career, and currently sits second all-time in school history in rushing. He's 493 yards behind program leader Darrell Thompson (4,518 yards), and has an outside shot at the school record should Minnesota play four more games. He also ranks second behind Thompson in program history in scrimmage yards.

While the offense sits at 17th in the nation in points per game (35.9), the defense has performed admirably, as well, ranking 27th in the country allowing 21 points per game. The defense has been led by Antoine Winfield, Jr., remarkably still a sophomore in his fourth year with the program after appearing in just eight games in the past two seasons. Winfield, Jr., the son of former NFL veteran Antoine Winfield, leads Minnesota in tackles, and his seven interceptions are second-most in FBS. He's been named a finalist for the Bronko Nagurski Award, given annually to college football's best defensive player.

It has been an historic season for the Golden Gophers, and it will come to a head on November 30th, at home against the Badgers. A win would secure their first ever appearance in the Big Ten title game, and line them up for their first Rose Bowl appearance in over 50 years.

All they have to do is secure the hand tool of a giant fictional lumberjack. Easy.

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