Now here’s a mid-November with relevant gophers, long among the cuter rodents even if these particular Gophers don’t tend to store food in cheek pouches. P.J. Fleck’s Minnesota epitomizes something college football often lacks, given its hoarding kingdoms, yet suddenly boasts in abundance: freshness. Suddenly, it has Minnesota, an elevated LSU, an admirable Appalachian State, a likable Baylor and — can that be? — one Lovie Smith riding across a field atop a mass of young shoulders.
“There are no words for it,” Fleck said of the stadium atmosphere Saturday.
“I cannot even put into words,” Minnesota receiver Rashod Bateman said after seven catches for 203 yards against then-No. 4 Penn State.
“I just got up and saw my teammates and fans going crazy,” Minnesota defensive back Jordan Howden said after his interception clinched both the 31-26 win and brought masses out of the stands and onto the field to exult.
And while noting Howden, let’s not forget the oft-forgotten: the importance in American culture of the desperate, chasing, straining tackle that prevents an apparent touchdown from becoming a real touchdown. Howden achieved that, too, with supporting help from Antoine Winfield Jr., when Penn State receiver Johan Dotson roamed free across the Minneapolis prairie for 49 yards to the Minnesota 11-yard line with the clock passing the two-minute mark and the hopeful day fixing to crumble.
Suddenly, it matters coast to coast that the Gophers (9-0) will play Saturday at No. 18 Iowa (6-3) for the Floyd of Rosedale, that trophy with the voluminous background. It is, of course, a replica of a late hog whose brother appeared in the Will Rogers movie “State Fair.” This reminds us we are a lunatic people, as does studying our nation’s most important chart: turnover-margin rankings.
Fleck, sometimes pooh-poohed as with any original, emphasizes turnover margin in day-to-day coaching ways one might dub eccentric, but, oh, no, wait, look. In 2013, Fleck’s Western Michigan ranked No. 104, and by 2016, it ranked No. 1 (tied with Washington). In 2017, Fleck’s Minnesota ranked No. 64, then dipped to No. 89 in 2018, then rose to its present No. 13.
Suddenly, the nation has LSU rather than Alabama at which to fix its Southeastern Conference gaze, which means it has LSU’s vividly human faces. If you cannot revel in Coach Ed Orgeron’s joy at getting to go to the 7-Eleven for one of those gross energy drinks without having LSU fans implore him to beat Alabama, then you are an Alabama fan, a prude or both. For one thing, it might mean Orgeron goes to 7-Eleven for his own drinks, rather than sending some cheerless underling.
“I enjoyed it a lot, to be honest with you,” he said of LSU’s riveting 46-41 festival of state-of-the-art offense at Alabama, and his considerable face did beam.
If you cannot feel glad for quarterback Joe Burrow and his rise after Dwayne Haskins pipped him for the Ohio State job after spring 2018, and who says, “I enjoy getting hit sometimes; makes me feel like a real football player instead of a quarterback,” then you should. If you cannot admire the 5-foot-8 running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who stood amid reporters in an end zone Saturday night and said, “Everybody in this corner right now is probably taller than me,” then you should have no friends.
“He’s gonna, you know, play a long time,” Burrow said of Edwards-Helaire, and do remember one play most. LSU faced third-and-10 from Alabama’s 36-yard line with the score 33-27 and, about to be creamed, Burrow loosed a little semi-prayer of a 4-yard pass rightward to Edwards-Helaire. The latter reached down for a hard catch, then pushed and dragged and churned through defenders for the last seven yards to the marker and just beyond.
You might even call him the Appalachian State of backs.
Appalachian State (8-1) has beaten North Carolina, Coastal Carolina and now South Carolina, meaning East Carolina and Western Carolina must be relieved they’re not on the schedule. The Mountaineers just became the first team since 1999, per Bryan Ives of the ACC Network, to win on the road against an Atlantic Coast Conference team and an SEC team in the same season. The way the Mountaineers held off the Gamecocks told much.
Trailing 20-9, South Carolina scored with 2:58 left to make it 20-15. Appalachian State punted from its end zone. South Carolina started from near midfield. It sputtered to fourth-and-18. It converted that. Then it sputtered to fourth-and-15. It converted that, too. It stood nine yards from rescue. The Mountaineers held it off. That is so very much not easy.
“The poise on the last drive,” remarked Coach Eliah Drinkwitz, and were Appalachian State not established as the football hotbed that — you might have heard — once won at Michigan, one might liken it to John Mayers.
Mayers would be the 5-foot-10, 184-pound Baylor kicker with the concrete innards. On Sept. 28, Baylor’s fourth win of its unbroken nine hinged on Mayers’s 38-yard field goal with just 21 seconds to doom. That kick still stood as his longest when Matt Rhule, the masterful Baylor coach, sent Mayers out with 41 seconds left at TCU to try from 51, Baylor by a haunting three.
The score stood 9-6, in violation of a slew of Big 12 bylaws. (It’s a wonder nobody had called 911.) Mayers, from Flower Mound, Tex., 37 miles up the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, hit it. Baylor won in overtime for the second time this year, stands 9-0 with Oklahoma inbound, and justifies this comment from Rhule: “I hope people feel like that, ‘If I spend my money to get a ticket to a Baylor game, I’m going to get an honest effort,’ and that’s what we are.” Goodness. It can be hard for people to like Baylor after the atrocities of its Kenneth Starr-Art Briles days, but there are veins in which one must try.
It has not been hard to like Illinois as much as it has been hard to remember that it continued to conduct football operations, as the Illini reached mid-October with a 28-63 record across seven-plus seasons, but wait …
In sprouting from 2-4 to bowl-eligible at 6-4, they’ve pulled off two of the damndest wins of the whole national season, and now it seems the second-most-damndest might have been that smelling-salts upset of Wisconsin on Oct. 19. Their 37-34 win at Michigan State Saturday, yanked from deficits of 28-3 and 31-10, contains enough breathtaking plays that we all should go see the YouTube highlights package.
There are big-time plays from a receiver, Josh Imatorbhebhe, a touchdown with five seconds left and a whiplash 76-yard interception return from Sydney Brown, whose thrilling stream up the left sideline ratifies this bio item: finalist, high school 400 meters, Florida no less. Then Smith, that gray-bearded 61-year-old veteran of both Super Bowl XLI and Champaign gloom, rode on players’ shoulders and said, “You can imagine the excitement in our locker room. It’s just a feeling everybody should get a chance to go through.”
Happy November to all.