The night began with Bud Grant in tears and ended with a career performance from a native Minnesotan.
From start to finish, the first game in Minnesota’s new stadium could not have gone much better.
Nate Triplett christened the new home with a career-high 17 tackles and a 52-yard fumble return for a score to carry the Gophers to a 20-13 win over Air Force on Saturday night.
Eric Decker had 10 catches for 113 yards for Minnesota (2-0), which celebrated its return to campus with the opening of the $300 million TCF Bank Stadium.
“This place was magic tonight,” coach Tim Brewster said. “We knew that it was our night and it was our house.”
Asher Clark rushed for 90 yards and Kevin Fogler caught a 37-yard TD for Air Force (1-1), which led 10-3 after three quarters.
But DeLeon Eskridge scored on a 7-yard run to tie the game in the fourth, and then Brandon Kirksey forced a fumble from Falcons quarterback Tim Jefferson on an option play.
Triplett, a star running back and quarterback for Delano High School, scooped up the ball in the flats and sprinted the 52 yards for the go-ahead touchdown as 50,000 Gopher fans rejoiced under a partly cloudy September sky.
“I don’t think it’s really hit me yet,” Triplett said of his starring role on a historic night.
Minnesota made the ill-fated decision to move under the Metrodome’s roof in 1982, and the following three decades have been largely forgettable.
That all changed on Saturday.
Hours before the game, tailgaters set up shop in parking lots surrounding “The Bank.” on a beautiful day.
Fans from places like Columbus, Ohio, Tuscaloosa, Ala., or Norman, Okla., will probably shrug their shoulders at such a scene, but for a program that spent the past 27 years in a dungeon under a puffy white roof, it was quite literally a breath of fresh air.
More than 400 former players turned out as part of a stirring pregame ceremony to mark the return of football on campus and a halftime fireworks show lit up the Minneapolis sky.
“Phenomenal atmosphere for college football,” Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said. “They’ve got something here that’s pretty darn neat and really special. I think it’s evident they’ve got a place where they can build something down the road and be a top-20 program.”
Grant, the stoic Hall of Fame Vikings coach who played for the Gophers in the 1940s and was an honorary captain, openly wept while watching his beloved alma mater be embraced on its return home.
“To see the emotion out of our honorary captains was special,” Brewster said.
The Falcons opened the second half with an 11-play drive and had a fourth-and-1 from the Minnesota 9. But Triplett chased down Jonathan Warzeka on a stretch play to stop him inches short.
Air Force had run the ball on 51 of the 56 plays of the game when it had a first-and-10 from the Minnesota 37. Jefferson then found Fogler wide open down the seam to give the Falcons a 10-3 lead with 2:28 to play in the third quarter.
On the ensuing possession, Adam Weber hit Nick Tow-Arnett for 25 yards on third-and-25 and Eskridge scored to tie the game with 13:18 to play.
Weber, still just a junior, became Minnesota’s career leader in pass completions in the third quarter when he hit fullback Jon Hoese for his 540th completion. Cory Sauter set the previous mark with 539 from 1994-97.
He finished 20 for 29 for 219 yards.
The Falcons rushed the ball 66 times for 261 yards, but their one turnover in this precision offense proved to be costly.
Jefferson looked to pitch the ball on the play, but he was surprised to see no pitch man there and had to tuck it away at the last minute, but it was too late.
“I tried to tuck it back away, but as soon as I did that he punched it out,” Jefferson said.
Air Force tried an onside kick after Erik Soderberg’s field goal cut the deficit to seven points, but Da’Jon McKnight recovered it to seal the win for Minnesota.
“You try to make it like any other game, but it’s a whole different era now for our program and out team,” Weber said. “It sends shivers down your back.”