Behind-the-scenes moments in Gophers’ emotional win over Hawkeyes

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When P.J. Fleck did his customary crowd surfing atop players on Saturday night, the Gophers head coach didn’t have the highest elevation in pink-walled visiting locker room at Kinnick Stadium.

Minnesota defensive coordinator Joe Rossi had climbed on all fours onto the lockers’ roofs and was banging their metal frames as the celebration hit higher decibel levels after the Gophers’ 12-10 win over Iowa.

Rossi’s bird’s eye view was one of countless snippets that emanated from Minnesota’s first victory in the Floyd of Rosedale rivalry game since 2014 and the U’s first win in Iowa City since 1999.

Quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis let out a big scream as he entered the locker room. A trio of Gophers — Anthony Smith, Tyler Stolsky and Joey Gerlach — were needed to carry the 98-pound pig trophy into U’s confines. And one staffer talked about making a futile effort to find an makeshift ash tray to try to contain the victory cigars.

Given the eight-year drought — including all six under Fleck — players in post-game news conference s name-dropped how they did it previous teammates who came up just short against Iowa. And those guys, in turn, blew up current players’ phones with messages.

Naturally, Gophers players focused on old teammates within their own position group and the current team’s statesmen such as seventh-year receiver Chris Autman-Bell and sixth-year tight end Brevny Spann-Ford.

Fifth-year safety Tyler Nubin mentioned former U defensive backs Jordan Nubin, Coney Durr and Phil Howard. “All those guys I went through the fire with in the DB room that wasn’t able to get it done,” Nubin said. “I had all of them with me (Saturday) and I was playing for all of them.”

Sixth-year center Nathan Boe had a pink towel around his neck postgame, a subtle fleck on the Hawkeyes’ attempt to distract visiting players with the calming color. The Lakeville native gave a shoutout to former O-linemen Conner Olson, Sam Schlueter, Blaise Andries, Daniel Faalele and many more he didn’t mention in that moment.

“They are blowing up my phone right now,” Boe said. “They are so excited because it means as much to them as it does to us. Playing with emotion for six years; it just made the day so special. I don’t know how much people really understand how much it meant to the state of Minnesota and the players who have played here for six years, seven years under coach Fleck and built this place to what it has been.”

As the celebration was in full swing, a handful of players went live on Instagram to share the revelry with followers. As the good times rolled along on buses for drive home, assistant coaches took to X to post about how much pride they have for their players. Rossi also posted a series of pig emojis.

Sixth-year running back Bryce Williams, who was recently lost to a season-ending injury, hoped on a video call with his teammates from Minneapolis. That was similar to how an injured Autman-Bell joined in digitally when the U beat Wisconsin in Madison a year ago.

Veteran Gophers players and staff had made two painful trips to Iowa City in 2019 and 2021; both losses that derailed Big Ten West Division title hopes.

“I was experiencing so many emotions out there with my brothers, from all the pain and disciple that we’ve gone through in the past six years,” Boe said. “It’s just been a lot.”

The Gophers were able to snap long losing skids against Iowa with the help of a controversial review of an invalid fair catch signal that wiped away Cooper DeJean’s stunning 54-yard punt return touchdown.

“Sometimes it’s harder than you think to beat a team that you haven’t beat in a while,” Boe said.

The U was able to win its first game without an offensive touchdown since 1981. And in one of the oddest coincidences, that processor was also a 12-10 win over Iowa at Kinnick Stadium, coming on the back of four made field goals. Back then, it was Jim Gallery; on Saturday, it was Dragan Kesich.

As nearly everybody was celebrating together, Fleck dipped back onto the abandoned field for a little bit of peace.

About 15 minutes prior, Fleck was asked about the significance of the Gophers possessing both Floyd and Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the first time in 30 years. The U had both trophies at a point during the 1993 season.

“Listen, we just do what we are hired to do and that is go win football games and do it in a way that can make people better academically, athletically, socially, spiritually,” Fleck said. “When you do that, eventually things are going to go your way. A lot of things haven’t bounced our way this year, they really haven’t. To have the Axe and the Pig in our building — we got to put the Axe on the line in a few weeks (on Nov. 25) — but it’s really special.”

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