The Gophers finally have their next game in sight: Jan. 1 in the Outback Bowl against Auburn. But for a long week, the Gophers had to sit with a 38-17 loss to rival Wisconsin that ended the regular season.
That game took away Paul Bunyan’s Axe, a Big Ten Championship Game berth and the Rose Bowl. Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said the players responded to the defeat in “classy fashion” in a team meeting the next day, eager to fix mistakes. But he gave the players this past week off to digest the season while the staff recruited before returning to practice Sunday.
“I feel like everybody was ready to move on,” defensive end Winston DeLattiboudere said. “… Now we have three weeks for the Auburn championship bowl season. So we have so much that we’re ready to pour in and so much work that we’re doing, new drills, different things like that. And I feel like it’s like an electric atmosphere.”
Quarterback Tanner Morgan said he watched Saturday’s Big Ten Championship Game and remembered how close the Gophers came, how much the team wanted to be there. But it just inspired him to do whatever possible to make it to Indianapolis next year.
“Obviously, it stung,” Morgan said. “… Move on. You can’t sit there and let it affect you, carry it over. It is what it is. And Coach did a great job of explaining that to us. … We had a great year.”
Senior skip day?
Bowl games present an opportunity for some players to sit out as a way to avoid injury ahead of the NFL draft. The Gophers have several potential draft picks this season, such as receiver Tyler Johnson, linebacker Kamal Martin and defensive end Carter Coughlin.
Fleck said he’s not yet sure about any of his players deciding not to play, adding he hasn’t really thought about it yet. Senior DeLattiboudere said he’s looking forward to playing the final game of his career with the rest of the graduating players.
“This is one last time where we can come together,” DeLattiboudere said. “… It’s going to mean the world because those are the memories that you’re going to remember. You don’t always remember play 37 against Illinois. You don’t always remember play 39 against Maryland. But you remember when you went to the Tampa, the Outback Bowl, and you played with your brothers for one last time.”
The Gophers have a couple more weeks to have some players return from injury. One could be quarterback Zack Annexstad, who Fleck said could return from his foot injury early in training camp to play in the bowl game.
Tight end Jake Paulson and running back Cam Wiley did not play against Wisconsin on Nov. 30, both on crutches. Paulson appeared to injure his right ankle at Northwestern; Wiley had his left leg braced ahead of the Wisconsin game. Right tackle Daniel Faalele left the Wisconsin game early and later was on the sideline, on crutches with his left foot booted.
Fleck said those three were at practice Sunday, but it’s too early to say whether they’ll be ready for Jan. 1.
“We’ve got guys rehabbing and getting better, but no decisions necessarily have been made on some of those guys,” Fleck said. “I’m sure there’s going to be some that end up playing that were hurt and some that probably don’t end up playing.”
Two Gophers are up for special awards this week. Safety Antoine Winfield Jr. is one of five finalists for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy for the best defensive player in college football. He’s in Charlotte for the Monday evening awards banquet, with Fleck set to join him after some recruiting.
Winfield is still deliberating on whether, as a fourth-year sophomore, he should return to the Gophers or declare for the NFL draft. He led the team with 83 tackles and seven interceptions this season.
“I’m sure I’ll throw out a few things here and there subliminally to him as we sit at the table,” Fleck joked. “But, you know, he definitely deserves it.”
Holder Casey O’Brien will be in Atlanta on Thursday for the College Football Awards to accept the Disney Spirit Award as college football’s most inspirational player. The sophomore is a four-time cancer survivor and missed the Wisconsin game after having another lung surgery to remove a spot. Fleck said O’Brien is doing “tremendous” after the procedure.