This is kind of weird, right? Second week of November, undefeated, playing the 4th-best team in the country in a nationally televised game. Win, and we’re in the top 10 with a very, very credible track to the Rose Bowl. Lose and we’re still the prohibitive favorite to win the West. I’m not sure if it’s appropriate to use halcyon days in the present tense – today is halcyon! – but, regardless of what happens the rest of the season and in the years to come, right now feels pretty effing terrific.
I’ve more or less spent the last two weeks vacillating between surety that we’re going to win – crush them even – and going through the mental preparations required to cope with the Pasadena dream coming to an end for the 53rd consecutive season. We’re a really good football team. We’re fundamentally sound, don’t make many mistakes and have enough athletes to compete with all but the ‘Bamas, LSUs and Ohio States. We’re going to find out on Saturday if we’re a great team, capable of taking down Penn State, which sits comfortably in that tier of teams just below the aforementioned three.
The path to victory is pretty obvious. We’re almost certainly the best offense they’ll have faced this year. They’re built to stop the run, but PSU fans are damned fools if they think that alone will be sufficient to keep us from scoring (that we’re a one-dimensional run team has been a major theme on the PSU message boards this week). TyJo, Bateman, Crab and Tanner and going to need big, mistake-free days to get PSU on the back foot and soften up the defensive front for the running game. On offense, PSU has thrived on big plays; Rossi has been God Emperor of minimizing those. Gophers win 35 -14 and 50,000 of us break our legs storming the field.
The road to despair is pretty obvious too. On the basis of recruiting evaluations, we should lose by 5,000. Their defense is a freaking nightmare and Tanner may not have time to throw anything other than slants. If that’s true and we can’t effectively run the ball, we may not score. And, defensively, let’s be honest: the five B1G offenses we’ve faced are less effective than a Juggs machine firing balls from the back of a moving pick-up truck. KJ Hamler is a better version of Rondale Moore and, god help us, their quarterback is mobile and could run for 250 yards. And let’s not even talk about special teams. Gophers lose 42-0 and I drink Phillip’s gin straight while listening to the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald on repeat for 48 hours, get fired from my job and we’re killed by a gamma ray burst right before the moon smashes into the earth.
So, yeah, my inner experience thinking about this game has been…rich. A good therapist – or even a shit one – would probably tell me that I’m letting past experiences that have no connection to the present affect my thinking. Everything – everything – we’ve seen since the Purdue game last season says we’re way more likely to see the first scenario than the second. We’re doing things the program hasn’t done since before the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor, like, every week now. We’ve won ten games in a row. Ten! The Gophers! It’s almost inconceivable that we’d go full flatulent in tomorrow’s game.
But when given the chance THAT’S ALL WE’VE EVER DONE! 20 years since a top ten win. 42 years since a top ten win at home. Shit, the win over Rutgers this year was the first time we won as a ranked team in a decade. We never win the big game. 1999, 2003, 2004, 2014, 2016. The chance for breakthrough is there. The lights get bright. And we wilt.
Very few things are either absolutely true or absolutely false. Narrative defines reality. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, our political and religious beliefs manifest as legal and economic systems. None of these are true or right, false or wrong. They just reflect social consensus: an agreement among a community to see and do things a certain way. To agree on the story that defines us.
And the story that’s defined the Gophers – the one we’ve all more or less subjectively bought into – is that of an also ran: Fleck will win games and leave, nothing ever goes right for us, the media is out to get us, we always lose the big game. Now, there’s certainly some basis for that story – we haven’t been very good and some of the media are shitposters lol – but none of it is true *today*. Fleck just signed a new contract, we’re 8-0 and have been on the good side of the wheel of luck this year, even Reusse is saying good things about the Gophers and…well, we haven’t yet won the big game.
So here we sit, one day before our next chance to change that part of our story. We might not do it tomorrow – Penn State is a really good team. But that shouldn’t affect an awareness that the story that we’ve let define us is gone now. The dumbest writer on this site said something at the start of the season that’s still true today: “The trepidation we have going into the season is a function of the baggage we’ve been carrying around for decades. But we’ve been carrying it because we’ve chosen to carry it. The association of “Gopher football” and “existential pain beyond comprehension” isn’t real.”
Things are different now. We’re a better program now than we’ve been at any point in my life. We have the leadership, coaching and players to do amazing things. Including beating one of the best teams in the country. That’s our new narrative. And that’s a hell of a story to define us.