Amazing Sweep for Minnesota, Northland Teams

As sports fans in Minnesota, and particularly from the perspective of Northern Minnesota, we just aren’t accustomed to the sort of sports success “our” teams inflicted on assorted foes last weekend.

I mean, we are accustomed to the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs whipping some Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference football rival, and nearly as used to St. Scholastica’s football team beating some UMAC opponent. And you might say we’ve also come to expect UMD’s sensational volleyball team to unload on a couple of NSIC foes. And they all did, just that. For those in the Northland who like to look at the University of Minnesota’s winter sports teams, we appreciate that the Golden Gophers always win in women’s hockey, and that the men’s hockey team recently joined the women in a unique match of No. 1 rated outfits. We are not, however, generally used to the Minnesota Vikings, our gang in the NFL, and the NHL’s Wild, and the NBA’s Timberwolves, all winning, winning, and winning at the same time.
And there is no way, for a couple of generations, we dared to anticipate the University of Minnesota beating a Big Ten football foe, let alone two, three, and then four of them in consecutive order. Starting out with the usual assortment of cupcakes, the Gophers beat Nevada-Las Vegas, New Mexico State, Western Illinois, and San Jose State, proving exactly nothing. The Big Bad Big Ten schedule came next, and, true to form, the Gophers lost 23-7 to a mediocre Iowa team, and 42-13 to a slightly-better-than-mediocre Michigan outfit.

Astounding as it may seem, Minnesota -- which lost coach Jerry Kill to the drama of treating his epilepsy -- upset a very strong Northwestern team. Never mind that Northwestern was without its very talented top quarterback and top running back; the Gophers can’t be blamed for that. And they subdued the Wildcats 20-17. Next came Nebraska, right there in Minneapolis, and never mind the Cornhuskers had their ace quarterback hobbled on one leg; the Gophers can’t be blamed for that. And they whipped the ‘Huskers 34-23.

Next came a trip to Indiana, where the Hoosiers have an explosive passing offense and an equally porous defense. The Gophers beat Indiana 42-39 in a bizarre finish. The Hoosiers, marching resolutely downfield for what would be the winning touchdown, had plenty of time and first and goal. But a swing pass to the top Hoosier receiver was dropped, and when the receiver stood there, aimlessly, a Gopher defender picked up the ball. The officials ruled that it was, indeed, a lateral pass, and by gaining possession, the Gophers stole a victory.

Last weekend, Penn State came to TCF Bank Field, and we knew this was not the Penn State of the late Joe Paterno’s dynasty days, but a Nittany Lions outfit shattered by the aftermath of the recent Sandusky child abuse scandal; the Gophers have no blame in the Penn State struggles. So they whipped Penn State 24-10 last weekend. For the first time in the memory of any Gopher football observer, the Golden Ones had beaten four consecutive Big Ten opponents. They stand 4-2, after that 0-2 start, in the Big Ten, and 8-2 overall, assured of an invitation to a bowl game that means something.

The season, of course, is not yet over. This weekend, Wisconsin comes to Minneapolis, and this is a Badger team riding the crest of a semi-dynasty, which is more accustomed to contending for a title up there with the Ohio State and Michigan powerhouses than languishing amid the pretenders, such as we’ve come to expect of our Gophers. The Badgers could blow the Gophers sky high out of TCF Bank Stadium, and next week, the Gophers also could get blitzed when they head off to East Lansing to face a true Big Ten power in Michigan State.

If the Gophers lose to both Wisconsin and Michigan State, none of us will be surprised. And while it will diminish the great and surprising season, it won’t prevent the Gophers from going to a higher-level bowl game than is their usual fate. But maybe, just maybe, the Gophers with their new and exciting multiple set offense, and with Jerry Kill up in the press box in radio contact with his assistants on the sideline, could spring another -- make that two more -- Big Ten upsets and finish the season as the surprise team in all of college football.  How rare is it that the Gophers are on a four-game winning streak and it is the Vikings who have sprung a huge surprise to beat Washington last week in a remarkable display of NFL competence?

That doesn’t mean the Vikings are in line for a run on the division leaders. Far from it. But with all their quarterback woes, and with Christian Ponder suddenly appearing capable of rising above the Larry-Moe-and-Curly show, the Vikings at 2-7 have found that misery loves company. Aaron Rodgers is out for a month in Green Bay, and Jay Cutler is just making his way back into the Chicago Bears lineup, meaning Matthew Stafford of the Detroit Lions is the only proven quarterback playing at full stride in the division. Which is why I pick Detroit, which beat Chicago to take sole possession of first place, to gain enough of a foothold to hold the lead and win the division.

The Vikings, however, could decide the division champ, because they have to play all three rivals a second time. Not that they can worry about such upcoming games. The Vikings, this weekend, must go to Seattle and play the mighty Seahawks, a team that has sputtered for two of the last three weeks but still won those games. The Seahawks, with Russell Wilson at quarterback, and Marshawn Lynch at running back -- a standout who seems to do an Adrian Peterson impersonation every Sunday.

Still, we can ride the crest of our state’s sports success into the teeth of the weekend. UMD, which has a tough challenge at Northern State in Aberdeen Saturday, must win that season finale to have any hope of a playoff spot. Meanwhile, the UMD hockey teams, after a weekend off, are both on the road, also, with the men at North Dakota in an NCHC series, and UMD at Ohio State in what is looming as a huge Women’s WCHA series. That’s also timely, because the UMD volleyball team deserves the spotlight all to itself as it concludes its Northern Sun regular season against Minnesota State-Mankato at 7 p.m. Friday, and then takes on No. 1 and defending NCAA Division II champion Concordia of St. Paul at 4 p.m. Saturday afternoon. Romano Gym should be jammed for that, and the volleyball team deserves nothing less.