There’s no doubt that the Gophers are lamenting their 23-19 loss at Iowa last week as they get ready to play at Northwestern on Saturday.
But the fact is that Kinnick Stadium has been a very tough place to win in November — in 2017, Ohio State was 7-1 but lost 55-24 at Iowa on Nov. 4, and in 2016, Michigan was 9-0 until it lost 14-13 at Iowa on Nov. 12 — and the Gophers showed real resolve in staying in the game once they trailed 20-6 at the half.
Coach P.J. Fleck said he knew this team could compete for a Big Ten title, but he also knows there is room for growth on this 9-1 club. “No matter what anyone else says, we were picked [by the Big Ten media to finish] sixth in the West, almost last in the West, second to last,” Fleck said. “We knew if we could have our young guys grow up fast we could have a really special season and a special team. I think the season has been special up until this point. I think there is a lot of meat left on the bone and we have to continue to get better every day.”
One thing Fleck said the team has to learn is how to win as the front-runner, a new position for these Gophers as they hold a one-game lead over Wisconsin in the Big Ten West.
“This team is learning how to win championship football in November. It has been a long time since we had to do that,” he said. “When you’re actually in the race and you actually have the lead and you have all of that stuff, there is a lot to deal with. This team is learning how to play championship football. We were able to do it one week against Penn State, we weren’t able to do it the next week against a top-20 team in Iowa at Kinnick Stadium. We just have to be more consistent.”
No perfect games
Before losing to Iowa, the last time the Gophers lost was against Northwestern last season, 24-14 at TCF Bank Stadium.
They won at Wisconsin the following week to secure a bowl bid and also start an 11-game winning streak.
So how do you coach a team after that kind of loss?
“We have to correct the mistakes. The great thing about coaching is there is never a perfect game, so you always have a job the next day, in terms of what you have to get better at,” he said. “We have to get better at a lot. I was really proud of the resolve of our team, to be able to continue to fight all the way through that game and as bad as we played we still had a chance to win it with one possession remaining.”
The biggest personnel question heading into the Northwestern game is the status of quarterback Tanner Morgan, who is in concussion protocol. Fleck said his availability is out of his hands.
“He is doing really good, but he is in protocol,” Fleck said. “Our trainers and medical staff have control over what he does and how he does it.”
Beat the champ
There aren’t going to be many people picking Northwestern, a 13½-point underdog, to beat the Gophers on Saturday, even at home.
The Wildcats rank No. 9 in the Big Ten in total defense, allowing 344.5 yards per game. Their rush defense also ranks No. 9 in the conference, allowing 141.7 yards per game.
Fleck said the simple fact is Northwestern won the Big Ten West last year and will pose a challenge.
“It’s very simple, they’re the defending Big Ten West champs,” Fleck said. “That’s the scouting report. That’s how we’re talking to our players, and that’s what we mean. They’re the Big Ten West champs, defending, and to win the West you have to go beat the West champion.
“That just shows that last year has nothing to do with this year and last game has nothing to do with this game. It’s one-game seasons. It’s one-game championships. It’s one-game entities.”
Gophers defensive back Chris Williamson has a few games left in his redshirt senior season, and he talked about how his decision to transfer from Florida to Minnesota changed his life.
“I’m going to miss the relationship that I have built with these guys,” Williamson said. “I am a transfer, so these guys welcomed me with open arms. It was something different. Just coming to Minnesota, somewhere I had never really been before. ... It is definitely going to be something that I miss. I’m going to miss Coach Fleck, too, the relationship he and I have.”
Williamson has done a little bit of everything for the Gophers this season — he has 45 tackles, 2½ sacks and an interception return for a touchdown. He said his energy on the field has matched well with Fleck.
“We have always seemed to pretty much get along,” Williamson said. “We’re always messing with each other, whether it’s before practice or after practice. He is just a fun guy to be around. I mean he gives me a lot of energy. I feed off of him. We kind of feed off each other, and that has molded our relationship.”
• Former Gophers football coach Jerry Kill joined Virginia Tech as a special assistant to head coach Justin Fuente in the middle of the season. The Hokies are 7-3. Kill talked to a radio station in Virginia about what it’s like to be coaching on the sidelines again. “Just being down there, it’s amazing,” he said. “I was telling Coach how much better your vision is when you’re not the head coach and a coordinator. You can stand back and really analyze things and see things even better than you do when you’re in the middle of the heat.”
• South Dakota State true freshman quarterback Keaton Heide, from Wayzata High School, set a Missouri Valley Conference record for consecutive completions with 14 during the Jackrabbits’ 38-7 victory over Northern Iowa on Saturday. He finished 15-for-16 with two touchdowns in a game between top-10 FCS teams.
• Good news for former Gophers tight end Maxx Williams. The Cardinals signed him to a two-year, $7 million contract, according to Ian Rapoport. Williams is averaging a career-high 12.6 yards per catch.
• The Wolves traded Dario Saric to the Suns, along with the No. 11 pick, to draft Jarrett Culver at No. 6 overall. Saric is averaging 10.4 points, 6.1 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.1 steals per game. Cameron Johnson, drafted at No. 11 by the Suns, is averaging 9.1 points and 3.2 rebounds per game. Culver is averaging 8.3 points and 2.8 rebounds per game but shooting just 36.6% from the field.