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On the eve of Penn State, Gophers have chance for breakthrough

The Minnesota football program is soaring to new heights heading into Saturday's game against 5th-ranked PSU.
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MINNEAPOLIS — During the last-minute rush Friday night at Goldy's Locker Room in Dinkytown, Marquel Fleetwood sifted through a collection of hats, sweatshirts and athletic wear, pondering another addition to his wardrobe. 

Fleetwood is quite familiar with the Maroon and Gold colors. From 1989 to 1992, the former Minnesota quarterback played in 44 games for the Golden Gophers, occasionally in high-stakes environments — like his sophomore season finale against Iowa in 1990 that drew 64,000 fans to the Metrodome.

But nothing quite like Saturday. 

"I don't remember the excitement or buzz around the program, quite like the buzz that's here right now," Fleetwood said. "Everybody's talking about the big game this week."

Games like this just don't come along very often. 

With undefeated records on the line in front of a nationally-televised audience, 13th-ranked Minnesota will host 5th-ranked Penn State at 11 a.m. in a contest that carries major Big Ten and college football playoff implications. TCF Bank Stadium is sold out for the first time since 2015. Two top-15 teams are playing in Minneapolis for the first time since 1961. And the Gophers have a spotless 8-0 record for the first time since 1941, the year Minnesota earned a fifth national championship in eight seasons behind Heisman Trophy winner Bruce Smith and Hall of Fame coach Bernie Bierman. The hype is so giant, Gov. Tim Walz proclaimed "Maroon and Gold Friday" in an official State Capitol document. 

Amid criticism of Minnesota's perceived mild schedule, Saturday's game is the opportunity of a lifetime for the Golden Gophers. 

Marquel Fleetwood and other former players, spanning multiple generations of the program, are beyond thrilled.

"I think it means a lot," Fleetwood said. "It gives visibility to the athletic program, specifically to football but I think to all athletic programs."

The University of Minnesota certainly has a chance to increase visibility this weekend, as the college football world generally seems to agree that Penn State/Minnesota is the second-most important game behind only the mammoth Alabama/LSU tilt. Although ESPN's College Gameday opted not to visit Minneapolis, a national crew from Big Ten Network could be observed setting up equipment near Williams Arena late Friday afternoon. Digital signs near campus, including some on University Avenue, also reminded fans Friday evening to plan ahead for the early 11 a.m. kickoff. 

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Inside Goldy's in Dinkytown, meanwhile, Marquel Fleetwood was hardly the only person looking for Gopher gear on the eve of Saturday's game. 

Halia Parrott, a senior at the U, picked out a maroon sweatshirt to go along with the athletic department's color recommendation for TCF Bank Stadium.

"The Gophers have really stepped it up this year. It's just big for the school," Parrott said. "I think we've been under-looked the past few years."

Not anymore, perhaps.

"When I think about the culture the coaching staff has created, it's not far-fetched to believe we're 8-0 right now," Fleetwood said. "They're in a position they really should be in."