The top moments of a historic 11-2 Gophers football season

Minnesota Gophers wide receiver Tyler Johnson (6) scored a touchdown late in the second quarter against the Auburn Tigers during the Outback Bowl on Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2020 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla. ((Photo by Aaron Lavinsky/Star Tribune via Getty Images))

After just three seasons in charge, P.J. Fleck has changed the expectations for and the perception of the University of Minnesota football program.

Fleck’s Gophers, coming off their first 11-win season since 1904, finished the year ranked No. 10 in the final Associated Press bowl. The Gophers finished a historic 2019 season with a 31-24 win over No. 12-ranked Auburn in the Outback Bowl.

Minnesota will have at least three NFL Draft picks in April, with safety Antoine Winfield Jr. and linebacker Kamal Martin on defense, and receiver Tyler Johnson putting himself in the history books by season’s end. The Gophers accomplished all kinds of things this year, and the hope now is Fleck has established a standard.

Minnesota will enter 2020 likely ranked in the top-15 in the country. They won’t sneak up on anyone next year. With spring football about two months away, here’s a look back at some of the top moments of 2019.

Rashod Bateman 1-handed catch against South Dakota State

The first touchdown pass of the season would end up on ESPN’s SportsCenter, and little did Rashod Bateman know it was just the start of a historic season. Tanner Morgan, who go the quarterback job out of fall camp after Zack Annexstad’s foot injury, hit Bateman for 42 yards down the left sideline. Bateman reeled it in with one hand and got the first receiving touchdown of the season.

The Gophers needed every point in a 28-21 win over South Dakota State to open the 2019 season. Bateman’s day ended with five catches for 132 yards.

Chris Autman-Bell TD, Antoine Winfield Jr. interception at Fresno State

Chris Autman-Bell and Antoine Winfield had the two biggest plays of Week 2, one that sent the game at Fresno State and the other a game-clinching interception that helped the Gophers avoid their first road loss off the season. Tanner Morgan drove the Gophers, needing a touchdown late in regulation to force overtime, down the field and connected with Autman-Bell on a 20-yard touchdown in the back corner of the end zone with 46 seconds left. Autman-Bell defied gravity, made the catch and somehow got one foot in bounds for the score to count.

Then, it was Winfield’s turn to be the hero. After a Michael Lantz field goal gave the Gophers a 38-35 lead, Winfield stole the game from Fresno State. Jorge Reyna thought he had a tight end open down the seam for what would’ve been the game-winning score, but Winfield jumped the route and made the interception at the last second. Winfield finished the season in the top five in the country with seven interceptions. He was a First Team All-Big Ten pick, and the Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year.

Tanner Morgan converts 3rd-and-30 to beat Georgia Southern

Tanner Morgan came to the rescue in Week 3 as the Gophers needed a miracle conversion in the final three minutes to avoid what would’ve been an ugly home loss to FCS opponent Georgia Southern. The Gophers face a 3rd-an-30 deep in their own end. They had two downs to get 30 yards, or the game was over. Morgan hit Demetrius Douglas on consecutive plays to convert the 3rd-and-forever, and the game was still alive. Morgan drove the Gophers down the field, and finished off a thrilling, but at times hard to watch, 35-32 win over Georgia Southern with a 2-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Johnson.

The Gophers avoided a bad loss, and easily could’ve had an 0-3 start. Instead, they entered Big Ten play 3-0 and battle-tested, whether they liked it or not.

Tanner Morgan’s historic day at Purdue

Tanner Morgan put himself in the college football history books as the Gophers won their Big Ten opener 38-31 at Purdue. Despite being sacked four times, Morgan finished 21-of-22 passing for 396 yards and four touchdowns, two to Bateman. Morgan’s 95.4 completion percentage was the highest in college football for at least 13 passes completed.

Morgan had become one of the most efficient passers in the country, being mentioned in the group with Jaylen Hurts of Oklahoma, Justin Fields of Ohio State and Tua Tagovailoa. Going into next season, one Las Vegas sports book has Morgan at 10-1 odds to win the Heisman Trophy. Not bad for the redshirt sophomore, who three years ago thought he would play for Fleck at Western Michigan.

Casey O’Brien debuts at Rutgers

October 19 is a day that Casey O’Brien will take with him for the rest of his life. The Gophers improved to 7-0 with a 42-7 win at Rutgers, and O’Brien fulfilled his lifelong dream of playing college football. O’Brien, a four-time cancer survivor, made his debut as a holder during the second half of the win over Rutgers. He ended up holding three extra points for Michael Lantz. After the first one went through, he was mobbed by his teammates and shared a long, emotional embrace with P.J. Fleck. There weren’t many dry eyes on the sidelines.

It turns out O’Brien wasn’t done battling cancer, either. Before the Gophers hosted Wisconsin in their regular season finale, O’Brien had to have surgery to remove a spot on one of his lungs that doctors located during a three-month scan. It was taken out, and despite doctor’s orders, O’Brien was at TCF Bank Stadium for the Gophers/Badgers game. He continues to wear bracelets on his wrists for kids that are still battling cancer and who have lost their battle, and his football debut became a national inspiration.

Gophers shock Penn State on Bateman’s career day

In the biggest game of the history of TCF Bank Stadium, the Gophers beat then No. 4-ranked Penn State 31-26 in front of a capacity crowd to improve to 9-0 on the season. Tanner Morgan threw for 339 yards and three touchdowns, one each to Rashod Bateman, Tyler Johnson and Chris Autman-Bell.

Jordan Howden sealed one of the biggest wins in Gophers history with an interception in the end zone of Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford. The Gophers moved to No. 8 in the College Football Playoff poll after the win, the highest they’ve ever been ranked.

Tyler Johnson leads Gophers to Outback Bowl victory

The Gophers put a bow on the most successful season in 115 years with a 31-24 win over No. 12-ranked Auburn in the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day. Tyler Johnson put himself in the record books in his final college game, catching 12 passes for 204 yards and two touchdowns. The first score was a 1-handed, highlight reel grab in the back of the end zone that gave the Gophers a 24-17 lead at the half.

The numbers are an Outback Bowl record, and he passed Ron Johnson with 31 career touchdown catches for most in Minnesota history. He leaves Minnesota as the record holder in career yards (3,305), career 100-yard games (16), single-season yards (1,318), catches (86) and touchdowns (13). As P.J. Fleck put it, he’ll leave as the greatest receiver in the history of the program.

It was a historic season at 11-2, and Fleck hopes it’s just the start of a sustainable championship-caliber program.