As often is the case with spring football games, a festive atmosphere is woven into the business at hand, and that was no exception for coach P.J. Fleck and the Gophers football team.
The marching band was there, 10,000 tickets were distributed so fans could attend a game for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic hit, and there was a little bit of everything to take in on a sun-splashed Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium.
You want quarterbacks catching touchdown passes? You got it with Tanner Morgan showing off his hands on a "Philly Special'' trick play.
How 'bout an offensive lineman running for a TD? Sam Schlueter was your man.
And if you wanted to see a 6-9, 370-pound offensive tackle lining up at QB and throwing a touchdown pass, Daniel Faalele had you covered.
The Maroon team, led by Morgan and wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell, defeated the Gold squad 24-17 on Cam Wiley's 2-yard TD run with 3 minutes, 11 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
The game came down to the final minute, as backup QB Zack Annexstad drove the Gold to the Maroon 1-yard line, only to have cornerback Terrell Smith intercept his fourth-down pass in the end zone with 15 seconds left.
"That was a lot of fun,'' Fleck said.
It also served as a good first step as the Gophers try to rebound from last year's 3-4 season. Both offenses moved the ball as Morgan went 9-for-17 for 148 yards and a TD, and Annexstad completed 14 of 23 passes for 232 yards.
Autman-Bell solidified his status as the team's top receiver by catching seven passes for 100 yards and a score, while Clay Geary (four catches, 74 yards) and Daniel Jackson (four catches, 63 yards) looked as if they could supply depth.
On defense, Smith stood out with his game-clinching interception, while Jah Joiner (five tackles, two sacks) and Derik LeCaptain (interception, forced fumble) joined Smith and Autman-Bell as game MVPs, sharing the Sid Hartman Spring Game MVP award.
"My message to them in the locker room was I saw a lot of development in every single player on this football team,'' Fleck said.
The Maroon got a big defensive play early when tackle Nyles Pinckney, a transfer from Clemson, stuffed Gold running back Treyson Potts for no gain on fourth-and-1 from the Gold 45. The Maroon offense cashed that stop in for a 7-0 lead on third-and-goal from the 4 when Morgan handed off to Wiley, who flipped the ball to Michael Brown-Stephens. With Morgan sneaking out of the backfield unwatched, Brown-Stephens found the QB for the touchdown.
"It was competitive,'' Morgan said. "Each team was doing whatever it could to win the game. Guys were really into it.''
After a Gold turnover in the second quarter, Morgan immediately hit Autman-Bell on a fade for a 28-yard TD pass and 14-3 lead.
"Chris does a phenomenal job of getting open and coming down with the ball,'' Morgan said. "We saw it again today, and we've seen it all spring.''
The Gold rallied, with Annexstad finding freshman receiver Brady Boyd for a 40-yard gain, followed by the trickery with Faalele lining up at QB and hitting wide-open Ko Kieft for a 3-yard TD pass that trimmed the Maroon lead to 14-10.
"Daniel threw a dot to Ko,'' Morgan said. "That was pretty cool to see.''
Both teams' defenses took control before the Gold knotted the score 17-17 late in the third quarter when Schlueter rumbled into the end zone on a counter play.
Morgan led the Maroon on an 11-play, 40-yard march for the winning TD, highlighted by a 23-yard hookup with Autman-Bell on third-and-22. "I learned to be patient, your time will come,'' Autman-Bell said. "It's coming now.''
With a 36-yard connection with Geary to the Maroon 3-yard-line with 56 seconds left, Annexstad had a chance to tie it before Smith's interception.
"It was a really special day,'' Fleck said.
"It springboards us into the summer.''