MINNEAPOLIS — Bryan Cupito was on daddy duty last Saturday morning, watching one of his four kids play basketball during the first half of Gophers-Penn State football game.
But when the Nittany Lions were driving down the field on a fourth-quarter comeback, the former University of Minnesota quarterback and Woodbury resident tuned in to his alma mater’s game at TCF Bank Stadium on TV and suffered from flashbacks.
As Penn State completed a 49-yard pass into Minnesota’s red zone with a chance to take the lead in the final two minutes, the steady string of text messages ramped up between Cupito and other members of the 2003 Gophers team.
“We were like, ‘Oh, my God, this can’t be Michigan again,’” Cupito said in a interview this week with the Pioneer Press. “I must have saw the word ‘Michigan’ numerous times.”
For legions of Gophers fans, big-stage collapses have become stains on the program’s fabric. Few defeats have been more painful than in 2003 when the 20th-ranked Wolverines staged a 31-point fourth-quarter comeback to knock off No. 17 Minnesota 38-35 at the Metrodome.
“That is definitely the memory from those couple of years that every player still brings up all the time,” Cupito said.
But this year’s Gophers team buckled down, and Jordan Howden’s interception sealed a 31-26 upset of fourth-ranked Penn State. Then, the tenor Cupito’s texts with ex-teammates changed for the positive.
“It was literally validation,” Cupito said. “For them to hold them off and win the game, I’m not going to say it made you feel better from the 2003 game, but definitely was just great to see the whole program finally win a game like that.
“They are finally there. They had been so close a couple of times, especially in 2003, but to get over the hump and say that Minnesota can be very good program.”
But for that status to ring true, it must be confirmed week in and week out.
Improving to 9-0 and 6-0 in the Big Ten, Minnesota was rewarded by jumping nine spots to eighth in the College Football Playoff ranking Tuesday and now must prove that position against No. 20 Iowa (6-3, 3-3) in a 3 p.m. kickoff Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.
Gophers coach P.J. Fleck has struggled to understand the here-we-go-again pessimism from fans, but his history here only goes back to 2017.
“We’ve got to let go of all that 50 years ago, 40 years ago, 30 years ago, 20 years ago, 10 years ago, we’ve got to change at some point,” Fleck said in his postgame news conference Saturday. “I think this team’s proven that, that as we continue to go into the future, we don’t have to keep saying things like that.
“Does that mean you’re gonna win them all? No, it doesn’t mean that. But they’re doing a lot of special things that you can keep building on.”
With last week’s game against Penn State, Saturday’s game at Iowa and the Nov. 30 home game against No. 14 Wisconsin, this Gophers team wraps up the regular season with three huge games in which both teams are ranked, which would tie 2003 for the most in program history. (That predecessor lost all three.)
When Gophers fans stormed the field Saturday, it was reminiscent of when they previously did it after winning the Floyd of Rosedale Trophy at TCF Bank Stadium in 2014 and when they watched Hawkeyes fans do it at the Metrodome in 2002.
In the regular-season finale, Iowa clinched a share of the Big Ten championship in a 45-21 beat down of Minnesota, which had been ranked two weeks earlier.
With future Viking and then-Hawkeyes linebacker Chad Greenway calling the Metrodome “Kinnick North,” fans felt right at home to go on the field and do as they pleased.
“To have the goalposts come down and all that stuff,” kicker Dan Nystrom recalled, “it leaves a sour taste in your mouth — for sure.”
“They beat us,” Cupito added. “They deserved it. I think they went to the Orange Bowl that year. It doesn’t sit well as a player, but we didn’t do anything to prevent it. They came out and pounded us.”
On Saturday, the Gophers can clinch the Big Ten West title with a win and Nebraska upsetting Wisconsin in an 11 a.m. game in Lincoln.
Cupito, a reserve on the 2003 team before becoming a three-year starting quarterback, said this Gophers team silenced his doubts.
“They’re legit,” he said.
The Gophers’ rise now has them projected for a Rose Bowl berth, and their current to-the-moon trajectory has them in contention for a College Football Playoff spot.
“The further you get down the road and the closer to becoming (a champion), the more people will hate you, doubt you and criticize you,” Fleck told his players in the locker room after the Penn State game. “If you are not willing to walk down that path, you’ll never have success, you will never have what you just had on that field. You will never have a chance to do what you have a chance to do.
“This is a huge, monumental win — don’t get me wrong — and I mean monumental! ” Fleck said in the Big Ten Network footage. “But you put yourself in a position to have bigger, more valuable, special, monumental things — and you know what I’m talking about.”
The players responded, “Yes, sir.”
“I don’t want the ride to stop,” Fleck said. “Anybody want the ride to stop?”
To which players shouted in unison, “NO, SIR!”