I have covered Gophers football for 75 years, and I have never seen a display like I saw after P.J. Fleck’s 17th-ranked squad defeated No. 4 Penn State 31-26 on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium.
It’s one of the greatest victories in program history.
Bowl representatives from both the Orange Bowl and the Citrus Bowl were at the game and they told me the Gophers are a top candidate to play in either of those stellar games.
Fleck told me during the week that the game was going to come down to which team limited mistakes. The fact that the game was decided on an interception by Jordan Howden in the end zone — with Penn State driving with a chance to win — showed that the Gophers coach was right.
The Gophers won the turnover battle 3-1, and that made all the difference in a game that saw Penn State total 518 yards of offense.
“We knew we had to be able to play our style of football,” Fleck said. “There was nothing different about it. It had to be us. We didn’t have to do anything different, we just had to be able to do it better than we did the week before. I know that sounds cliché and coach-speak and gimmicky, but at the end of the day it’s really not — it’s how you win football games.”
Penn State has one of the best defensive lines in the country. The Nittany Lions held the Gophers to 145 yards rushing on 40 attempts — but the Gophers offensive line was phenomenal. Tanner Morgan was sacked only once while having one of the greatest passing days in school history.
Morgan completed 18 of 20 passes for 339 yards with three touchdowns. You have to wonder in the history of college football how many times a quarterback has had more touchdown passes than incompletions — although Morgan has done it twice this season, having thrown for four TDs while completing 21 of 22 passes at Purdue.
“Tanner Morgan, we have talked since Day 1 that he is a winner,” Fleck said. “Intangibles through the roof, a guy that you want to marry your daughter. He is. I have a 6- and 5-year-old, so definitely not mine, but somebody else’s daughters. I will say that he is special.”
Ciarrocca’s flawless game
Fleck said that the offensive game plan was absolutely perfect.
“We knew we were going to have to throw the football,” Fleck said. “You saw their D-line. You saw what they looked like, they’re tough, they’re long, they’re strong. We knew we were going to have to mix it up. I thought [offensive coordinator] Kirk Ciarrocca called an unbelievable game, unbelievable, flawless.”
During the bye week, Ciarrocca prepared for this game like no other, Fleck said: “Last Wednesday we all left for recruiting, well, Kirk didn’t. Kirk was by himself. He’s in his element. Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, I’m not sure if he went home, but he was by himself. That’s Kirk.
“Kirk loves to be by himself. He got more work done than anybody in the entire building probably in the last six months, by himself. He just loves that. He loves sitting in his hole watching film, and it showed.”
In a game matching two of the top offenses and top defenses in the Big Ten, the Gophers made the big plays.
Antoine Winfield Jr. had two interceptions to help the defense keep the Nittany Lions in check. Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford was excellent. He threw for 340 yards, but the fact is, he had only one touchdown pass against three interceptions.
“I’m so proud of our players,” Fleck said. “They just have incredible resolve — their response mechanism. Our culture is what it is. It’s people, it’s vision, it’s work, it’s result and response. That’s what it is. They respond like no other team I have ever seen. They deserve all the credit. I just am lucky enough to talk to you at the end of the game, that is basically all I do. Very proud of them. Historic win for our program.”
Zimmer scouts former team
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer coached 13 years for the Cowboys and now gets a chance against his old club.
“They’re good, very good offensively, No. 1 in the league, good offensive line, good receivers, quarterback is playing very, very well, excellent running back,” he said. “Defensively very active upfront on the defensive line, good corners, linebackers are very fast and active.”
Asked what he sees from Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott, Zimmer said: “They’re throwing the ball really good. I think Prescott is playing really well and they have good receivers. [Jason] Witten has helped them a lot at tight end. [Amari] Cooper obviously. Michael Gallup has done a nice job, as well. And they have [Randall] Cobb and [Tavon] Austin. They have a lot of weapons.”
The Cowboys also have the fifth-best scoring defense in the NFL, giving up only 17.8 points per game, right behind the Vikings’ 17.6.
“They’re very active, they rush the quarterback very well, they get up the field and go run a lot of games and twists on third down,” Zimmer said. “They’ll play us a lot of man-to-man on third down. We’re going to have to be able to beat some man-to-man coverage.”
• Despite a tough loss at Kansas City last week, Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins has posted a 127.1 passer rating over his past five games, the highest mark in the NFL. His overall rating of 112.0 is third behind Seattle’s Russell Wilson and Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes. Dak Prescott of Dallas ranks eighth at 102.5.
• The Vikings have had trouble stopping the pass and it’s not going to get any easier. Dallas ranks fourth in the NFL with 287.5 passing yards per game. Pro Football Focus ranks the Vikings’ Trae Waynes 62nd among 79 NFL cornerbacks and Xavier Rhodes 70th.
• A headline in the Dallas Morning News this week: “Cowboys defense is the driving force behind Dallas’ back-to-back wins.” The story noted that the Cowboys had eight sacks, forced seven turnovers and gave up only two touchdowns vs. the Eagles and Giants.
• It might surprise Vikings fans to know Pro Football Focus still ranks them as the sixth-best team in the NFL behind the Patriots, Saints, 49ers, Ravens and Chiefs.
• The Cowboys have averaged 2.8 sacks per game while the Vikings have averaged 3.1. The Vikings rank sixth in the NFL with 28 sacks in nine games while Dallas has 22 in eight games.
• CBS Sports posted its latest 2020 first-round NFL mock draft and had one Gophers player getting selected, wide receiver Tyler Johnson at No. 29 overall to the Ravens.
• Former Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau sat courtside with injured Nets star Kevin Durant on Tuesday to watch Apple Valley’s Tre Jones and Rochester’s Matthew Hurt make their season debuts for Duke vs. Kansas at Brooklyn’s Barclay Center.
• How good were the Twins pitchers? Keith Law of ESPN ranked Jake Odorizzi as the No. 9 overall free agent in baseball, Michael Pineda No. 15 and Kyle Gibson No. 16.