Minnesota Gopher football players were instructed to close their eyes at one point last week and visualize what they could accomplish in Saturday’s game against Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium.
Coach P.J. Fleck had his players use their imagination to see how they could end a 14-game losing streak to the Badgers since 2004 as well as a 11-game road skid in Madison since 1994.
“Walk them through the whole thing,” Fleck said. “The smells, the sounds, maybe the boos, our fans, the cold. How it felt.”
The players pictured making field goals, completing passes, finishing off sacks and then, ultimately, running across the field to seize Paul Bunyan’s Axe. They envisioned celebrating with teammates and going into the stands to hug family.
And those things happened in the Gophers’ 37-15 victory over the Badgers. It gave the Gophers (6-6, 3-6 Big Ten) bowl eligibility for the first time under Fleck.
“It was kind of a speak-it-into-existence deal,” junior defensive end Carter Couglin said. “But actually doing it was so much cooler than it was in my mind.”
The Gophers not only won, they dominated the Badgers, handing Wisconsin its worst home defeat in the rivalry since 1936. Minnesota came into the game with a Big Ten-worst 21 giveaways in eight league games but didn’t have a single one Saturday.
Averaging only 1.3 takeaways per Big Ten game, Minnesota forced Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook to give the ball up four times, with three interceptions and a fumble.
Minnesota added 16 special-teams points - three Emmit Carpenter field goals and Demetrius Douglas’ 69-yard punt return for a touchdown.
“Being able to visualize it was huge,” said Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan. “Visualizing different throws and different things like that (and understanding) everything might be not perfect, but we are to be able to respond and do what we can do and find a way to win the Axe.”
After having a hand in three turnovers in Minnesota’s 24-14 loss to Northwestern a week ago, Morgan was error free Saturday. The redshirt freshman completed only nine of 16 passes for 124 yards and no touchdowns, but was responsible for no interceptions, fumbles or sacks.
Leading 23-7 in the fourth quarter, Minnesota took a page out of the book Wisconsin often used to beat the Gophers, putting together a 15-play drive that ate nine minutes off the clock. With three third-down conversions, the Gophers had 12 runs, nine from Mohamed Ibrahim, who outrushed Wisconsin’s Heisman Trophy candidate Jonathan Taylor, 121 yards to 120. The drive ended with Carpenter missing his only field-goal attempt Saturday, but the damage had been done.
“A lot of tough decisions on that one, but I told our team as we took the field that we need a big drive, a long drive,” Fleck said. “I said I’m going to be very, very aggressive. Rashod Bateman makes a huge third-down catch. We make a huge third-down run (by Seth Green).”
On the 10th play, facing third-and-6, Morgan found Tyler Johnson for a 13-yard completion to continue to wear down the Badgers. After the game, Johnson fulfilled the ultimate visualization in being one of the first players to get his hands on the Axe. He then led a parade with it around Camp Randall.
“That moment is just something I will never forget in my entire life,” Morgan said. “It got really emotional. Probably almost cried, I don’t know. It’s just such a surreal experience. I was just very thankful for everybody that was here and the roles that they played.”
Coughlin was able to hug his dad, Bob, a former Gopher, as maroon and gold fans took over the south stands to celebrate with the team. Carpenter did the same with his parents, Tim and Laura.
“I pictured myself climbing up into the stands and giving my mom and dad a big hug,” Carpenter said. “I got to actually do that, so it was a pretty special moment.”