Minnesota football: My 10 favorite moments from the 2020 season
It’s often said it’s more about the journey than the destination. But the biggest story of Minnesota’s 2020 season was probably that the season even happened at all.
After all the back-and-forth with the Big Ten, which finally allowed its football teams to play football at the 11th hour, and the COVID-19 wrecking ball that crashed into TCF Stadium on more than one occasion, what’ll endure from this year unlike any other isn’t restricted to just football.
A 3-4 record isn’t memorable. But beating a traditional blueblood with 33 players out due to a global pandemic is.
Losing all three of your trophy games is memorable, but for the wrong reasons. But a workhorse back finishing near the top of FBS amid all this madness is memorable for all the right reasons.
The Golden Gophers weren’t winners in 2020. But they were gutsy as heck.
And they provided ample reminders there’s a lot more to life than this sport. “Every game is a gift,” Justin Gaard, the team’s radio sideline reporter, often said from his socially-distanced vantage point throughout the season.
Here are 10 of the gifts we got this past year:
10. The season opener against Michigan
A 49-24 blowout loss? In a depressing, mostly-empty stadium? That exposed just how bad Minnesota would be on defense for most of the season?
It was 2020. So you betcha.
That night meant we made it. The B1G’s reversal allowed the season to begin with a bout for the Little Brown Jug.
And while the result wasn’t at all palatable, how’s this for an image that sums up 2020: A dreary night in downtown Minneapolis, the stadium lights the only thing piercing the darkness, on the same site where tens of thousands flocked for College GameDay and a BIG West-deciding rivalry game in 2019.
9. DeAngelo Carter’s big interception
It’s always a treat to watch a big, lumbering defensive lineman tote the rock. But Carter’s pick against Maryland was also significant because it provided a glimpse into how the Gophers can treat defensive success for the long-term.
The Minnesota defense stops Maryland’s drive with an interception at the line of scrimmage.
The Gophers take it back within the Terps’ 30 as they are close to tying this one up. pic.twitter.com/qulu3aEPRH
— Mike Touma (@miketouma41) October 31, 2020
Carter’s pick of Taulia Tagovailoa set up a game-tying touchdown in a nail-biter (Minnesota went on to lose in overtime).
This team isn’t going to have four NFLers every year like it did in ’19. But it can cause havoc of the game-changing variety on a consistent basis. Do that next year, and the B1G’s No. 10 total defense could see some sizable improvement.
8. Chris Autman-Bell’s twisting catch on fourth down against Purdue
Autman-Bell was expected to step up in a big way after the departure of Tyler Johnson from last year’s squad. Even after Rashod Bateman announced he’d be playing this season, the junior from Illinois didn’t disappoint — 22 catches for 430 yards in 7 games.
— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) November 21, 2020
His best catch, on a gutsy 4th-and-8 call by coach P.J. Fleck, helped Minnesota stay in an eventual, if not controversial, Nov. 20 victory over Purdue.
7. Boye Mafe’s monstrous day at Illinois
Minneapolis’ own defensive end was highly touted coming into the season and lived up to his billing as a pass rusher. His best day came in a somewhat startling 41-14 victory over the Illini: 6 tackles, 2 sacks and a forced fumble.
6. Josh Aune’s game-sealing interception against Purdue
Sure, the Gophers benefited from one of the worst pass-interference calls you’ll ever see in their 34-31 win against the Boilermakers. But of equal import was the fact Minnesota won down almost two dozen players and staff thanks to COVID.
The late heroics came from Aune, a St. Paul native who appeared primarily on special teams before this past season.
“That’s a really special team in there,” said Fleck, whose team had 61 scholarship players dressed. “This win isn’t gonna go down as one of the greatest wins in Gopher history, but I told them I’ll never forget this day … because of what it meant, what it represented, how they won it with all the adversity.”
5. Ted Morgan’s recovery from brain cancer
One of the best sights this season was the father of quarterback Tanner Morgan being able to take in his son’s games. Ted had been undergoing treatment for glioblastoma, a form of brain cancer, but received nothing but positive health news throughout the season.
UPDATE:: So got my Cardiologist notes on great MRI. I have been been praying in Jesus name not only no growth but to get back to original state tumor scare even. Cardio note says !! No growth and tumor scare shrinking away!! Praise the Lord. Folks the Prayer of Faith works!! pic.twitter.com/YFtfumCYhh
— Ted Morgan (@Tmorgan5312) December 6, 2020
His son, meanwhile, bounced back from a rough start to finish the year with 1,374 yards on 57.9 percent passing.
4. The return of ‘Agent 0’
The odyssey of superstar wideout Rashod Bateman last year was a complicated one. He at first opted out of the season after a serious COVID-19 scare, then returned and appeared in 5 games before opting out once again.
The in-and-out nature of the situation makes it easy to question Bateman’s authenticity when he said he was returning primarily for the sake of his teammates. What wasn’t in doubt: a) his talent and b) their enthusiastic response to his presence.
The projected first-round NFL draft pick’s 36 catches didn’t hurt, either.
3. The Axe
Another loss, this one of the soul-crushing, overtime variety, but commemorative-print-worthy for two reasons:
- Playing shorthanded once again, Minnesota showed incredible moxie.
- The game’s streak of consecutive annual matchups since 1906 remained intact, despite the virus.
“This is why you play a rivalry game,” Fleck said afterward.
2. Beating Nebraska
At present, a win over the Cornhuskers doesn’t represent what it used to. But the fact a program with fewer resources, less tradition and upwards of 30 fewer players available went into Lincoln and won should probably be one of the top stories of college football during COVID.
Missing more than 40 personnel at one point previously, Minnesota was an offensive lineman away from having to cancel a third straight contest.
“It was the next right step for our program because it showed our toughness,” Tanner Morgan said afterward. “Just play for each other, win with each other.”
B1G running back of the year Mohamed Ibrahim simply epitomized everything this team aspires to be about, frankly.
A yeoman’s work ethic. Ferocious yards after contact. And somehow he stayed healthy through it all.
The scariest part? The nation’s No. 2 rusher is coming back for his senior season.