Minnesota trailed Fresno State, 28-21, with 52 seconds remaining in their Week 2 game. The Gophers, a road favorite and trendy pick to win the Big Ten West, faced 4th-and-13 from the Bulldogs' 20-yard-line, long after most of the central and eastern time zones went to bed.
Tanner Morgan connected with Chris Autman-Bell for a spectacular game-tying touchdown that, at the time, set late-night Twitter ablaze and prompted a muted "Holy s—!" from the Doughty living room as the Mrs. and newborn slept in the adjoining room.
"You never know when your opportunity is going to come to make a play that could change the story of the game,” offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca said after the game. “And man, that was a big story changer.”
At the time, we didn't know the story. At the time, it was a spectacular catch with unknown consequences. Sure, it kept the Gophers alive in a non-conference game against what we thought was a great Group of Five team. Without it, Minnesota falls to 1-1, and we're no longer eyeing the Penn State game on Nov. 9, saying, "If the Gophers can reach 8-0 with a friendly schedule…"
Two months later, with that catch and an eventual double-overtime win, the Gophers are 9-0. Without it, at best, Minnesota is 8-1. An agonizing 8-1 accompanied by "If only they didn't lose to Fresno State…" laments.
There were other game-saving or game-winning plays in that game: Rashod Bateman's 18-yard reception on 3rd-and-18 a few minutes earlier, Tanner Morgan's third-down touchdown run in the first overtime, Michael Lantz's field goal in the second overtime, and Antoine Winfield Jr.'s interception in the second overtime. And in other games: Winston DeLattiboudere's fumble recovery vs. South Dakota State, Demetrius Douglas' 10-yard reception on 4th-and-8 in the fourth quarter vs. Georgia Southern, Tyler Johnson's game-winning touchdown reception with 13 seconds remaining vs. Georgia Southern, and Jordan Howden's game-winning interception vs. Penn State.
But, two months later, it's Autman-Bell's catch that sits a cut above. A historically underachieving program prepared to flop again against an inferior opponent before upgraded talent makes a big-time play. Those six seconds are more indicative of Minnesota's transformation under P.J. Fleck than any other on-field six seconds in his three seasons.
Those six seconds aren't supposed to go Minnesota's way. Often they do, though too often they didn't as the Gophers sputtered through the last five decades. Those six seconds didn't go their way in the final minute of a seven-point loss to New Mexico State in 2011, nor did they in overtime vs. Bowling Green in 2007 or against Ohio in 2000.
The Penn State win launched the Gophers into the College Football Playoff race and ensured a two-game lead in the Big Ten West with three games remaining. And while that win — and cathartic field-rushing — would've meant a lot even with a Fresno State loss, it meant a hell of a lot more and felt a hell of a lot better for a starved program thanks to Chris Autman-Bell's story-altering touchdown catch two months earlier.