The Gophers’ 37-15 victory over Wisconsin on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium not only gave coach P.J. Fleck a signature victory, it also gave him another month of practices for this young Gophers squad, which will be bowl-eligible a year after going 5-7.
This victory gave legitimacy to everything Fleck has said all year, even if at times he knew that the fans and media didn’t always believe what he was saying.
What a difference it is to have Gophers recruits and fans talking about a big victory in Madison and to have Gophers players getting ready for a bowl game.
The fact that the team was able to pull this off with senior linebacker Blake Cashman ejected for a first-half targeting call only made it more impressive.
After the game, Fleck was asked by reporters in Madison what this victory meant to him and this Gophers team.
“This is for everybody,” he said. “We’re a small part of it. This tradition has been going on for 128 years, we are a speck.”
Fleck said this victory meant everything at the end of a season in which the Gophers lost a number of starters to season-ending injuries, fired defensive coordinator Robb Smith and endured a tragedy in the death of former teammate Nick Connelly.
“This has been the biggest roller coaster journey of my head coaching career,” Fleck said. “This is what ‘Row the Boat’ is all about.”
Dominant from start to finish
The Gophers completely outperformed a Badgers team that came in as 10½-point favorites and also had 20 years of dominance in the battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe.
Since Oct. 22, 1994, the last time the Gophers won in Madison, Wisconsin had won 21 of 23 matchups. The Gophers’ two victories came in the Metrodome in 2001 and ’03 under Glen Mason.
They had lost 14 in a row to Wisconsin and were embarrassed 31-0 at TCF Bank Stadium last season.
This year things were different. There is no doubt that the biggest key came in taking advantage of turnovers.
While Wisconsin had the edge in yards (359-325) and first downs (21-19), the Gophers dominated time of possession 35:06 to 24:54. But more importantly they committed zero turnovers while turning four Badgers turnovers into 24 points.
The turnovers were gigantic and the Gophers, with a freshman-laden offense, managed every second of the game.
And the Gophers offensive line, which could hardly field a full unit a year ago, completely outplayed the Badgers offensive line that was featured in Sports Illustrated earlier this year.
Maybe the most impressive drive didn’t come off a turnover or end with points scored. Wisconsin, which came back from 14 points down in the fourth quarter to win at Purdue a week earlier, trailed by 16 after three quarters Saturday.
But the Badgers were held to a three-and-out to start the fourth quarter, and the Gophers went on a 15-play, 55-yard drive that took 9:16 off the clock. Even though it ended with a missed field goal, it also ended any chance of a Badgers comeback.
The Gophers would score 14 points the rest of the way, finishing off the defining victory of Fleck’s tenure.
Thielen on Green Bay battle
Being a Detroit Lakes native means Vikings receiver Adam Thielen knows a thing or two about the importance of facing the Packers.
“For sure, [the games] are special to this organization,” Thielen said. “You look at the rivalry and normally who comes out of the division and it’s usually one of the two. These are always big games for us and we have to make sure we’re focused and ready to go.”
Thielen had some of the best games of his career against Green Bay. In 2016, he grabbed 12 receptions for 202 yards and two scores in a game that cemented him as a rising star. Then in the 29-29 tie this year, he had 12 receptions for 131 yards and a score.
On top of that, Thielen said he has gotten to know Packers star Aaron Rodgers. Both are avid golfers and they play in a lot of tournaments together.
“He is a Hall of Famer, one of the best to ever play the game,” Thielen said. “That’s why you have to make sure as an offensive player that you’re staying on the field and keeping him off the field. He is good enough to really hurt you.”
Does any of Rodgers’ talent extend to the golf course? “He makes it tough to beat him at anything,” Thielen said.
• Vikings coach Mike Zimmer talked about the importance of getting Anthony Barr back at linebacker after he missed three games because of a hamstring injury. “It helps a lot,” Zimmer said. “Eric Wilson did a nice job when he was in there. There are just more things we can do with Anthony that allow us to be a little bit more versatile I guess is the best way to say it.”
• Pro Football Focus wrote this past week that Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins is on pace for the highest single-season grade from them in his career, and in addition he is posting the best numbers of his career in the red zone with a 83.4 passer grade, fifth best in the NFL. Cousins has 13 touchdown passes against zero interceptions in the red zone. … There is no question that Cousins’ $84 million contract, all guaranteed, forced the Packers’ hand in giving quarterback Aaron Rodgers a four-year deal worth $134 million with $100 million guaranteed.
• The standings currently have the Vikings picking 17th in the 2019 draft. CBS Sports expert Chris Trapasso sees them drafting Oklahoma guard Ben Powers. “The Vikings want to pass the football frequently with Kirk Cousins and their stellar pair of receivers,” he wrote. “Powers is the most impressive pass-blocking guard I’ve watched this season. Perfect match.”
• Timberwolves guard Derrick Rose entered Saturday posting the second-highest field goal percentage of his career (48.2 percent) and easily the highest three-point percentage (47.6 percent). You have to imagine he’s going to be in the conversation to be an All-Star and also in the running for Most Improved Player and Sixth Man of the Year.
• Former Gophers and Minnetonka High School pitcher Jim Brower was named Seattle Mariners bullpen coach. Brower, who pitched in 354 games with eight teams from 1999 to 2007, served as a Seattle assistant coach in 2018.