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Gophers vs. Penn State: Game of 'confidence and excitement'

It's been 78 years since the Gophers have taken the field 8-0. All eyes will be watching to see if they can win over powerhouse Penn State Saturday

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Three men sitting in a football stadium
Three generations of the Hunegs family members are avid University of Minnesota Gopher sports fans. Steve Hunegs, his father Richard and son Danny, rooted on the Gophers baseball team as they played in the NCAA regional championship in May 2018.
Courtesy of Steve Hunegs

Richard Hunegs grew up in north Minneapolis during the Great Depression listening to Halsey Hall broadcast Gophers football games on the radio.

He was 10 years old in October 1941 when he attended his first game with neighborhood friends.

He bought a bus ticket for a dime, lugged a thermos of hot chocolate and his father’s lunchbox into Memorial Stadium and watched through the sleet as Minnesota pounded Pittsburgh 39-0 en route to a perfect 8-0 season and a national championship the same year halfback Bruce Smith won the school’s only Heisman Trophy as college football’s best player.

“It was glorious,” Hunegs recalled this week. “The thrill of watching him play, the whole environment – men dressed in suits and overcoats, women in fur coats, that enormous green field. My memories are indelible.”

Six weeks later, Japanese fighter planes bombed Pearl Harbor, driving the United States into World War II. Hunegs went on to graduate from the University of Minnesota and earn a law degree from the school. He watched the Gophers win another national title in 1960, represented several former players as an attorney and held season tickets from his freshman year in 1949 through the Glen Mason coaching era of the late 1990s.

It has taken almost eight decades for Hunegs, now 88, to see his Gophers match the team of his youth as 13th-ranked Minnesota prepares for its biggest game in years Saturday against No. 5 Penn State at TCF Bank Stadium. 

Both teams are 8-0 overall and 5-0 in the Big Ten. The winner surely will crack the Associated Press top 10, where the Gophers have not reigned since 1962.

“For me, it’s like I’m 10 years old and I’m going to watch Minnesota play again, full of confidence and excitement,” he said. “That’s how I view this game, with confidence and excitement. Penn State will be justifiably favored. Minnesota is still this young program. But if they can hold their poise together and not let a play or series of plays get them down, keep scrapping, show themselves well, who knows? They might pull out an upset and win. I’ll be glued to my TV set.”

The stakes are enormous for the Gophers not just in the conference standings or national rankings but for the credibility of a once-downtrodden program and its messiah, P.J. Fleck. 

The third-year coach just signed a seven-year, $33 million contract extension that should keep him in Minnesota through 2026, barring an early departure that would cost Fleck a $10 million buyout as early as 2020.

This is a chance for the Gophers to at least preserve their two-game lead in the Big Ten West Division, keep them on track to play the conference championship game Dec. 7 in Indianapolis and positioned for just their second New Year’s Day bowl game in the last 58 years.

It is also a golden opportunity for Minnesota, which has not been ranked this high in the AP poll since it reached No. 13 in 2004, to convince skeptical fans who have been burned by misguided expectations and big-talking coaches before that this team is legitimate, the program is a destination for top recruits and its stadium can be party central on autumn Saturdays.

‘Hugging in the aisles’

The buzz on campus is palpable said sophomore Sophia Sexton, an international business and marketing major who also works in the university admissions office.

“It’s all people are talking about,” she said. “There’s a lot of excitement and it’s a little nerve-wracking, too, to see what’s going to happen. But I have all the faith and confidence. Everyone’s trying to find tickets. I’m hoping the student section is packed moreso than it has been in the past.”

Sexton grew up in Edina. Her father is a Minnesota alumnus. Her mother went to the University of Wisconsin, which challenged Sexton’s rooting interests until she settled on the U. Her god-uncle is longtime Gophers football public address announcer Jamie Verbrugge, so she has had backstage access to the program for years.

Sexton went to two games as a freshman and has tickets for five this season. She credits Fleck for the resurgence and restoration of a program plagued by decades of disappointment. One of her girlfriends is selling sweatshirts with “Roll Gophs” on the front and “Fleck! Fleck! Fleck!” emblazoned on the back.

“He’s almost a dad figure,” Sexton said about the 38-year-old Fleck. “Just being a homey with not only the players but the students as well, trying to connect with us as much as he can.”

Anne Marie Rogers is president of the Goal Line Club, which hosts a Friday luncheon at Jax Café in Minneapolis before every home game for boosters to watch coaches break down film or listen to former players speak. Only 70 people showed up the first week this year. Attendance more than doubled to 150 on Oct. 25 when Fleck’s wife Heather was the keynote before the Maryland game.

On Friday, former All-American defensive tackle Bobby Bell will fly from Kansas City to speak, and Rogers expects Jax to be a 230-person sellout.

“I’ve asked him the last three years, and this time he said, ‘OK, it’s going to be fun,’” said Rogers. “You can just feel it more in the tailgating parties and in the stadium. To see the stands so empty in recent years was so disappointing. Like, seriously? 

“Now,” she said, “people are hugging you in the aisles.”

Enjoying the journey

It helps that Minnesota has one of the most prolific offenses in the country. The Gophers have outscored their Big Ten opponents 206-72 and averaged 38.3 points a game.

But they have three narrow non-conference victories over unheralded South Dakota State, Fresno State and Georgia Southern, and their conference opponents have a combined record of 17-28.

Nitpicking that resume explains why the Gophers debuted this week at No. 17 in the season’s first College Football Playoff rankings, which determine which four teams will play for the national title.

With games against storied Penn State, formidable Iowa and archrival Wisconsin in November, the Gophers can script their postseason destiny as a curious nation withholds judgment.

“The dream is the journey, and you’ve got to enjoy the journey,” said Fleck. “You’ve got to look at the lows as a learning point and you’ve got to look at the highs and celebrate them in some way. How do you have fun throughout this?

“No matter who it was against, you earned a right for the big game,” he added. “The only way you’re going to continue to have that is to have success in these big games, in these big moments. But the pressure on them is earned.”

Sophomore quarterback Tanner Morgan said players are embracing the moment but not getting consumed by the hype, treating each game as a one-game championship season to maintain focus. They are hunting bigger game.

“It’s really cool when you have the whole state and people across the nation excited about Gopher football,” Morgan said. “It means a lot for our fans and this tremendous university. But again, for us, it’s this moment. It’s the biggest moment because it’s the next moment.”

History has not always been kind

Twenty years ago, the Gophers upset No. 2 Penn State in Happy Valley when Dan Nystrom kicked a 32-yard field goal as time expired to secure a 24-23 victory. But their success in big games has been fleeting.

In 2014, with a chance to win the Big Ten West and play in the conference championship game, Minnesota took a 17-3 lead at Wisconsin only to lose 34-24 to the Badgers.

In 2003, Michigan visited the Metrodome to play the Gophers on a Friday night because the Twins were hosting the Yankees Saturday in the American League Division Series. The Gophers were 6-0 and ranked No. 17. The 19th -ranked Wolverines had lost two straight and fell behind 28-7 in the fourth quarter only to rally for a devastating 38-35 win.

Along the way, there have been upsets: a pair of losses to North Dakota State and another to South Dakota. Fans also had to endure the Tim Brewster era, when he promised Rose Bowls only to flame out with a dismal 15-30 coaching record. Scandal rocked Fleck’s predecessor, Tracy Claeys, when four players were expelled in the wake of rape accusations.

Under Fleck’s command, players have elevated the team grade-point average to a record-high 3.20.

The turnaround on the field has been swift since he came over from Western Michigan. Minnesota was 5-7 overall and 2-7 in the Big Ten in 2017, his first season as head coach. The Gophers improved to 7-6 and 3-6 last season, defeating Georgia Tech, 34-10, in the Quick Lane Bowl. They have won 10 straight games dating to a Nov. 17, 2018, home loss to Northwestern.

When tickets were a $1 and spectators climbed telegraph poles

The historical context runs deep. One only has to go all the way back to 1903 and the Teddy Roosevelt administration for a Gophers home game featuring two undefeated teams with at least 15 combined victories.

Minnesota (8-0) and Michigan (7-0) squared off on Oct. 31 at old Northrop Field to determine who would be the consensus national champion, a game that would leave a lasting legacy for what happened on the field and what was left behind.

Front page of newspaper from 1903
The front page of the Nov. 1, 1903 Pioneer Press newspaper decrying the 6-6 tie between the University of Minnesota Gophers and the University of Michigan Wolverines football teams.
Courtesy of Pioneer Press

The hype leading up to the Halloween clash was intense for its time, with front-page headlines in Twin Cities newspapers and the Minnesota Daily reporting on secret night practices, ticket disputes, high-stakes gambling and late-night revelry.

Michigan had won 29 consecutive games, averaging 56 points while allowing only 12 total, and was 43-0-1 over the previous three seasons – including a 23-6 defeat of Minnesota in 1902.

The cheapest ticket available for Saturday’s game against Penn State at TCF Bank Stadium is $65, with some seats running as high as $255, according to the Gophers Sports website. In 1903, tickets cost $3 for boxed seats, $2 for reserved and $1 general admission. The demand was fierce, complete with familiar provincial griping between folks in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

According to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, “There is considerable dissatisfaction in Minneapolis over the way the sale has been handled and many went to St. Paul early in the day to secure tickets. Tickets are on sale at Tibil’s cigar store and it is said that a choicer lot of seats were offered for the St. Paul crowd more than for the Minneapolis rooters.”

The Minnesota Daily reported the night before the game some St. Paul homeowners called police about midnight to complain about yelling and screaming in the neighborhood.

“When the offenders appeared in police court the next morning, they were fined $2 each. Their plea for mercy was based on the claim that they were practicing the Minnesota yell.”

More than 30,000 people crammed into Northrop Field. Those without tickets climbed telegraph poles to sneak a peek.

What they witnessed, according to the Pioneer Press, was “one of the most determined struggles in football annals,’’ which was a defensive slog that ended in a 6-6 tie that failed to resolve anything.

The Gophers tied the game late in the fourth quarter when Egil Boeckmann scored on a fourth-and-goal run from the 3-yard line. The crowd swarmed the field, forcing officials to declare the game finished even though there was one minute remaining on the clock.

The next day, a janitor cleaning the Michigan locker room found a five-gallon glazed jug. Apparently, Wolverines coach Fielding Yost did not trust visiting teams to hydrate his players so he hauled water from Ann Arbor. But in their haste to escape the chaos on the field and catch a train to Chicago, Michigan forgot its jug.

Minnesota athletic director Doc Cooke decided to turn it into a trophy, painting it brown with the date and score from the 1903 tie. Cooke kept it in his office until Michigan visited Minnesota again in 1910 and won the rematch to reclaim the “little brown jug,” which has gone to the winner ever since, making it the first rivalry trophy in college football.

A perfect storm

It has taken 116 years for similarly undefeated teams to clash in Minneapolis.

For lifelong fans like Hunegs, the excitement and anticipation leading up to the Penn State game is a multi-generational affair. He passed on his Gophers passion to son, Steve, who attended his first game as a 7-year-old in 1970 and has had football, men’s basketball and men’s hockey season tickets for more than 20 years. Grandson Danny is a freshman at the U.

They will both be at TCF Bank Stadium Saturday.

“I asked my dad the day after the Maryland game what he would have thought if someone had told him as a 10-year-old in 1941 that he would be 88 years old the next time Minnesota was 8-0,” said Steve Hunegs, 56, of St. Louis Park.

“This is the perfect storm of positivity. I told Danny: ‘You’re it. You’re the magic man.’ All signs point to the game of a lifetime.”

Richard Hunegs would know. 

The 2019 Gophers has him enjoying “a second childhood.”

“As a little boy, you think winning goes on forever,” he said. “National champions, Big Ten champions, that’s all I knew. If we weren’t co-champions we were barely out of the running. 

“All these years of frustration, it’s been building,’’ he added. “Now, I see a glimmer of hope.”

Brian Murphy is an MPR News commentator and former Pioneer Press sportswriter and columnist.