After returning to the national spotlight in 1940, expectations for the 1941 Golden Gophers were high once again. On top of an already difficult Big Ten schedule, Minnesota had to go to battle once again with national powers Nebraska and Washington. But talk of another title flowed freely throughout Memorial Stadium.
The real superstar, and the key to Minnesota’s national title hopes, proved to be Bruce Smith. While Smith was only the third leading rusher on the team, his outstanding play and attitude on the field earned him widespread recognition. He not only earned All-Big Ten and All-America status, but also became Minnesota’s first and only player to ever win the Heisman Trophy. While Smith’s individual accomplishments were among the greatest in Minnesota history, the fight that the Golden Gophers put up during the 1941 season was every bit as exciting.
Minnesota opened the 1941 campaign against Washington in Seattle. The Huskies had established themselves as a dominant force, and games between the two teams traditionally proved to be very close.
This season’s match-up was to be more of the same. The Golden Gophers managed only 213 yards on the ground, 189 of them between Smith and Bill Daley. In the end it was the Minnesota defense who prevailed, smothering its opponent time after time as the Maroon and Gold escaped from Seattle with a 14-6 victory.
Minnesota opened its Big Ten schedule with the conference doormat, Illinois. As expected, the Golden Gophers rolled over the Orange and Blue 34-6. It proved to be a good preparatory game before another non-conference tilt against Pittsburgh.
Minnesota had not played Pittsburgh since the Golden Gophers won their first national championship in 1934. The Panthers gave Minnesota everything they wanted and more in 1934, but 1941 proved to be a different story. Minnesota dominated the Panthers in every aspect of the game. Despite fumbling the ball away four times, the offense racked up 39 points, while the defense stood strong by intercepting two passes and not allowing the Panthers a taste of the end zone.
After the Pittsburgh game, the Maroon and Gold headed into the meat of its schedule against Michigan, Northwestern, Nebraska, and Iowa. It was clear that if the Golden Gophers wanted to repeat as national champions that this stretch of the schedule would determine just how good the team truly was.
Michigan and Northwestern appeared to be the two greatest threats to Minnesota’s title hopes. Both teams had established themselves among the best in the conference and historically had given Minnesota fits. History was on Minnesota’s side, however, as they had emerged with victories in almost every close game in the past 10 seasons.
Michigan was looking to rain on Minnesota’s national championship parade after the Golden Gophers had defeated them on Bruce Smith’s last minute touchdown the previous season. Michigan was able to contain Smith (pictured) and Daley reasonably well, but in the end the Wolverine offense could not beat Minnesota’s defense and the Golden Gophers squeaked out a 7-0 victory.
Northwestern wanted revenge much the same as Michigan since Minnesota had come away with a one point victory the previous season.
Northwestern had luck on its side as Smith was injured and unable to carry the ball for the Golden Gophers. It appeared as if the elements were in line for the Wildcats to dethrone the reigning national champions. It was not to be however. Without Smith, Bud Higgins stepped up his game to gain 96 yards for the Golden Gophers and lead them to another exciting one point win over Northwestern, 8-7.
Minnesotans were somewhat concerned with their chances to win without Smith on the field. Against Iowa Head Coach Bernie Bierman chose to sit Smith out and not risk further injuring his knee. After one quarter, the Golden Gophers had not gained a single yard on the ground. Smith realized that if Minnesota was to win another championship he had to contribute. After convincing coach Bierman to put him in the game, Smith put the Golden Gophers in position to score three touchdowns. While Smith did not gain a large number of yards, he had helped to keep the Minnesota championship hopes alive.
The Golden Gophers closed out their season playing the University of Wisconsin. For the fifth time in eight years, Minnesota beat the Badgers to end the season and wrap up a national championship, making Bernie Bierman the winningest coach in school history.