Minnesota’s dream season ended not with a bang, but with a one-way ticket to Madison for Paul Bunyon’s Axe. The result notwithstanding, it’s incredible to look at how far the Gophers have come in just a year.
Approaching the Battle for Paul Bunyon’s Axe a season ago, Wisconsin was 7-4 and would finish in a three-way tie for second in the Big Ten West. Minnesota was the youngest team in FBS, with a record of 5-6. Their only wins in conference play were against Indiana and Purdue. I don’t remember how much Wisconsin was favored by, but it was a significant amount. The game was at Camp Randall, which is not an easy place to play.
And then, to the surprise of everyone, Minnesota won.
Head coach P.J. Fleck has pointed to that 37-15 victory as a turning point for this year’s Gophers. That game, he said, is when they started to believe. They followed it up with a 34-10 thumping of Georgia Tech in the Quick Lane Bowl, and winning their first nine games of 2019. The last in that string of victories, a 31-26 upset of #4 Penn State, was the most impressive and resulted in a leap up the rankings from #17 to #8. The team hit a speed bump against Iowa, dropping to #10, but rebounded a week later against Northwestern and regained the #8 spot. Just this weekend, Minneapolis received its first visit from ESPN’s College Gameday. Had the team beaten Wisconsin, they’d be preparing to face Ohio State for the Big Ten Championship this week.
Not bad for a team that, a year ago, needed to win Paul Bunyon’s Axe just to be bowl-eligible.
The seniors on this team deserve an extra helping of credit. Some of these guys have played under three head coaches- and even more coordinators and position coaches- in their time at Minnesota. Some of them could have gone to the NFL last year, and chose to stay. They were a huge part of the team’s success this year, and will be missed.