Six games. Three wins. Three losses.
And six lessons.
That’s what the Gophers football team has midway through coach P.J. Fleck’s first season in Dinkytown. And that’s what the team will try to improve on beginning with Saturday afternoon’s homecoming game against Illinois at TCF Bank Stadium.
Focusing on the season’s second half began late Saturday night, after the Gophers lost 30-27 to then-No. 21 Michigan State, a game in which Minnesota’s rally from a 17-point deficit fell three points short.
“After the game, I told them in the locker room: We’re drawing a line the sand. First half of the season is over, the second half of the season is here,” Fleck said.
The next night, he asked his players to brainstorm and find a common lesson from each game.
“Give me one thing, and we’ll all agree on it as a team, one thing from every game that we learned that we can sit there and say: ‘We are weathered, we’re experienced.’ ” Fleck told his players.
Here are the six lessons upon which the Gophers players agreed:
Anybody can beat you: The Gophers opened the season at home against Buffalo, a team coming off 2-10 record. The Gophers beat the Bulls 17-7, but needed a field goal with 2 minutes, 5 seconds left to finally create separation. “We learned that anybody can beat us,” Fleck said. “I didn’t think we deserved to win that football game.”
Emotion, focus are critical: In their only nonconference game against a Power Five opponent, the Gophers traveled to Oregon State and steamrolled the Beavers 48-14 on the strength of 28 second-half points. Conor Rhoda seized control of the quarterback job by going 7-for-8 for 159 yards. “That was the most emotion I’ve ever seen this team play with, practice, scrimmage, game,” Fleck said. “… Every play, everybody was in it for each other.”
Dealing with adversity, trust: Before the nonconference finale against Middle Tennessee, Fleck suspended Demry Croft, the co-starter at QB, for disciplinary reasons. The Gophers won 34-3. “I had to make decisions in terms of not having people here that didn’t do the right thing,” Fleck said. “If I can’t trust you, then you’re going to have to pay a price.”
Gotta play hard: In the Big Ten opener, the Gophers fell 31-24 to Maryland, allowing the Terrapins to rush for 262 yards and drive 74 yards for the winning TD with 1:10 left. “When we get outplayed and outscrapped and somebody does that to us, we’re going to get beat,” Fleck said.
Focus on finishing: In the thunderstorm-delayed 31-17 loss at Purdue, the Gophers went ahead 17-16 with 2:26 left after a drive of 7:32 led to a field goal. But the Gophers couldn’t get the TD, and the Boilermakers shredded a secondary down three starters because of injuries and a suspension for the go-ahead TD with 1:17 left. A pick-six set the final score. “We learned how to finish games,” Fleck said of the go-ahead field goal, “and we learned how people finish us.”
Don’t stop believing: The Gophers’ latest loss saw a slow start and Michigan State’s run dominance lead to what looked like a blowout in the making when the Spartans led 23-6 following a 16-play, 73-yard TD drive that ate 9:13 off the clock in the third quarter. Croft, however, threw three fourth-quarter TD passes to make it competitive.
“The way those players were able to come back from being down the way they were and just continue to fight, and scrap and claw …” said Fleck, whose team has had 16 players who played against Buffalo miss at least a game because of injury or suspension.
Defensive end Carter Coughlin picked out the message that hit home the most, and in it he found promise.
“When we played Michigan State, we finished that game, we just didn’t start,” he said. “When we’re able to combine our finish of that game and the starts that we have, it’s going to be special.”