Gophers linebackers Josh Aune and Mariano Sori-Marin had some good bro time after Aune’s game-sealing interception in Minnesota’s 34-31 win over Purdue on Friday.
On the sideline, they celebrated, joked, laughed and hugged. The U’s defense — especially its linebacker corps — needed fun-loving moments like that after so many of that group’s struggles led to a 1-4 start to the 2020 season.
“It was really special,” Aune said. “Mariano is like a brother to me and we work hard. We kind of do everything together. We have classes together. Having that win and getting that interception to have that moment with him was really, really special for me.”
As the Gophers dealt with roughly 20 absences due to injury and COVID-19 and 18 college football games were canceled or postponed due to the coronavirus this weekend, having a moment like that at all is a feat.
Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck said he was dealing with personnel changes as late as Friday morning and the whole situation has been taxing.
“It challenges you,” Fleck said. “It does everything it can to test your patience. It tests your commitment to the process. It tests your nerves. It tests your anxiety. It tests your culture. It’s tests everything that you are as a coach and as a man because it’s minute by minute.”
Fleck probed Gophers football fans’ nerves with two fourth-down conversions attempts against the Boilermaker on Friday.
“You can play the numbers; you can play a book; I play players,” Fleck said. “I’m going to make decisions based on how our team is playing, and the way (Purdue was) moving the ball in the second half, I figured we had to be able to.”
The first one made more sense, albeit with a slim 21-17 lead in the third quarter. Instead of trying a 51-yard field goal with their backup kicker Brock Walker, Fleck went for it on fourth-and-eight from Purdue’s 34.
“We were going to get man coverage and our guy had to be able to make a play,” Fleck said. “You have to trust your players to be able to make plays or you are never going to be able to move the ball down the field. You have to be able to take some risks at times, especially this year.”
Tanner Morgan threw a fade route to where only Chris Atman-Bell could make a play. Atman-Bell turned back well and came down with a 33-yard reception. It was part of his career-high 125 yards on a team-high five receptions, which helped complement Rashod Bateman as the team’s top target.
The conversion paid off with one of Mo Ibrahim’s three touchdowns Friday.
The latter fourth-down attempt nearly cost the U. After failing to convert on third-and-two, the U went for it on fourth-and-1f from their own 34. Minnesota brought in wildcat quarterback Seth Green, Purdue safety Marvin Grant came in off the edge untouched for a 3-yard loss.
“We have a missed assignment or it’s a great call,” Fleck said. “It’s unfortunate.”
Turned out the Gophers didn’t need any more points anyway. Three drives later, they received a gift offensive pass interference call which negated a Purdue touchdown.
“Oh man,” Big Ten Network’s Glen Mason said. “I don’t see where the penalty is.” Added BTN announcer Cory Provus, “That’s a bad call.”
On the next play, Aune pick off Jack Plummer with less than a minute left. He returned it five yards before making the smart move and going down before being tackled.
“I don’t really remember much about it at this point because it’s kind of a surreal moment,” Aune said postgame.
But he recalled the celebration, which included him sharing hugs with Blaise Andries, Noah Hickcox, Thomas Rush and Sori-Marin.
Among the three levels of the Gophers defense, linebacker has struggled the most as a position group in the opening month, so it was cathartic for them to have a good moment.
And that moment was bigger for Aune. It was his first career interception and after four tackles across the first four games, he totaled four tackles on Friday.
The St. Paul Highland Park graduate is the first Gophers scholarship player from a St. Paul public school since Johnson running back Thomas Tapeh in 2003.
“It’s been a dream come true to be able to play at the University of Minnesota,” Aune said. “It’s hard to put into words, truly. It’s so special. I love playing here. I have a tremendous sense or pride in my community.”