The Gophers’ historic 31-26 victory over then-No. 4 Penn State on Saturday would not have happened without nail-biting nonconference wins over South Dakota State (28-21), Fresno State (38-35 in double overtime) and Georgia Southern (35-32).
At the time, those three victories were viewed as signs that this Gophers football team — now 9-0 going into Saturday’s game at Iowa — really wasn’t all that special because they needed huge plays to win each of those games against teams nowhere near the caliber of the Nittany Lions.
Against South Dakota State, Mohamed Ibrahim scored a 1-yard touchdown with 5 minutes, 39 seconds remaining after Winston DeLattiboudere recovered a fumble when the Jackrabbits were looking like they were going to take the lead.
Against Fresno State, Tanner Morgan hit Chris Autman-Bell with a miraculous pass and catch in the corner of the end zone with 46 seconds remaining on fourth down to tie the score at 28. Antoine Winfield Jr. ended the game with an interception in the second overtime.
Against Georgia Southern, Morgan again made a huge pass, this time connecting with Tyler Johnson on a 2-yard score to take the lead with only 13 seconds left.
Coach P.J. Fleck said those victories built the team’s resolve and prepared them to hold on against Penn State, clinched with a final-minute interception in the end zone by Jordan Howden.
“I think in the first three games our character, our culture were all tested,” Fleck said. “Our players found a way to pass the test. Those are three really good football teams that we played. We got tested in a lot of areas that are helping us right now. If it wasn’t for those three games, we wouldn’t be in the position we’re in.”
Fleck said when he looks at the Gophers’ preparation last week, there was nothing different from their preparation all season.
“Nothing special, they were just themselves but they were a better version of themselves last week than they were the week prior,” Fleck said. “That is all we ask our players to continue to do: Be better today than you were yesterday. It’s a very simplistic approach, but very difficult to do.”
He said that approach is what built the team from making huge plays to pull out three nonconference games to making huge plays to beat a nationally ranked conference opponent.
“That is the whole point. You want your team to improve every single week,” he said. “Very difficult to do. Human nature, you are fighting that all the time, because everybody wants to get comfortable. You are fighting that comfort all the time for change and improvement, which is very difficult for young people to do. But we want them to keep getting better, and they have.”
Is Fleck starting to believe this team can compete for a Big Ten championship?
“One game at a time,” he emphasized. “We’re 0-0 [this week]. Most important game of the season is coming up here on Saturday and 3 o’clock. One-game championship against Iowa.”
Trouble at Kinnick
Last year, Fleck and the Gophers had perhaps their most surprising victory when they defeated Wisconsin 37-15 at Camp Randall Stadium for the first time in 24 years.
They will have to pull off a similar accomplishment Saturday if they are going to move to 10-0. They haven’t won in Iowa City since November 20, 1999. Their only other victory at Kinnick Stadium in the past 30 years was a 43-7 trouncing in 1989.
“They are a very good football team, they play Iowa football,” Fleck said. “That is the best compliment I can give them. They play smart, tough, sound defense. They tackle really well. They do what they do.
“On offense they are very efficient. They take care of the football, they run the football, their play-action game and explosive plays are way up from last year. They are very explosive on the outside, they have two or three receivers that can all make plays. Their tight ends, they had two first-round tight ends last year and they replaced both of them. And [quarterback Nate] Stanley is playing at a very high level right now.”
While the Iowa offense ranks 11th in scoring during Big Ten play at 18.8 points per game, their defense is second best in the conference, allowing only 11.8 points. The Gophers are second in the conference in scoring at 39.5 points per game and tied for fourth in points allowed at 16.3. Still, the Vegas oddsmakers view Iowa as the favorite, giving them a three-point edge.
Fleck, now in his third season with the Gophers, said one of the things he was most proud of about his club is that they practiced better Tuesday this week than they did on Tuesday last week before playing Penn State.
“This is a more mature football team than last year’s team or the year prior. That is no disrespect, they’re just more mature,” he said. “It’s not just the message anymore coming from the head coach. This is a players-led team. It’s not only about the message, it’s the messengers.”
The Gophers are starting to get a lot more national attention. Their No. 7 ranking in the Associated Press poll is their highest since 1962.
That could also have an effect on players. Johnson is already viewed as a potential NFL first-round pick, and Fleck knows that if they continue to have success, his best underclassmen might consider leaving early to declare for the draft.
There’s no doubt Winfield falls into that camp. The redshirt sophomore was named the Walter Camp FBS national defensive player of the week and Big Ten defensive player of the week after his two interceptions and 11 tackles against Penn State.
Fleck said that success is part of the goal of building a winning program.
“He always has the option to [go pro]; whether he does or not, that’s going to be up to him,” Fleck said. “We want to support him any way we possibly can and make sure Antoine Winfield Jr. is doing what’s best for Antoine Winfield Jr. and his family. We want to support those players that are going to have an opportunity to go play in the NFL — whether they’re seniors or whether they’re juniors or redshirt sophomores or whatever it is. But we also want them to be really smart about it, too, because there is a lot of special things happening here that I want them to be a part of as well. We’ll balance all that out when the time comes.”
Does he have any insights into how the team can keep all of this momentum going forward?
“We have to play our football,” Fleck said. “But we have to be a better version of our football than it was last week.”