One of the lasting images of the 2019 Gophers football season came early on when Antoine Winfield Jr. came out of seemingly nowhere to intercept an overtime pass in the end zone — one that looked like a sure touchdown until the last second — and preserve a 38-35 victory over Fresno State.
If Minnesota doesn’t win that game, who knows what happens during the rest of what became an 11-win season.
Plays like that led Winfield to be chosen in the second round of the NFL draft by Tampa Bay. And he’s been a key member of that defense from the jump. He ranks No. 26 among all Pro Football Focus safeties with at least 285 snaps this season — just a tick below the Vikings’ Anthony Harris.
And on Monday, he made the kind of game-saving play we became accustomed to seeing him make at Minnesota.
After the heavy underdog Giants had scored a late touchdown to pull within 25-23, Winfield broke up the pass on the two-point conversion attempt that would have tied the game.
Originally he was flagged for interference on the play, but after officials gathered they picked up the flag (correctly, it seemed. Winfield seemed to arrive at the same time as the ball and it hit him). That level of officiating respect isn’t often afforded to rookies.
Winfield’s play all season has him at least in the betting conversation to win Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, though Washington’s Chase Young is the prohibitive favorite.
Still, even being in that conversation is impressive for a second-round pick, considering 19 defensive players (including three safeties) were picked before Winfield).
But it’s not surprising to anyone who watched him play for the Gophers — and it’s not making anyone who hoped to see him in purple like his dad any less prone to second-guessing how draft day played out.