P.J. Fleck remembers all his trips to Kinnick Stadium. Just somewhat begrudgingly.
As a player, as a new head coach and as Gophers coach, Fleck has lost at Iowa. Sometimes by just a touchdown. Sometimes by eight.
But now, the undefeated Gophers will head to Iowa City on Saturday coming off their greatest victory in decades, picking off No. 4 Penn State 31-26. Following a field-storming high, the 9-0 Gophers will encounter the Hawkeyes, a team fighting for a shred of hope for a Big Ten West title.
And yet, Iowa is still a three-point favorite, with some prognosticators anticipating a Gophers letdown, knowing the Hawkeyes have a four-game winning streak against their northern rivals and have claimed the Floyd of Rosedale trophy six times in seven years. The Gophers haven’t won at Kinnick Stadium since 1999.
“We are going to practice this week harder than we’ve ever practiced because we’ve got our eyes fixed on the goal, which is going 1-0 in the Iowa season. And we’re going to take care of business.”
“We’ve done a lot of things we haven’t done in a while,” senior defensive end Carter Coughlin said. “So we’re going to keep the same mentality. And trust me when I tell you, we are going to practice this week harder than we’ve ever practiced because we’ve got our eyes fixed on the goal, which is going 1-0 in the Iowa season. And we’re going to take care of business.”
Iowa (6-3) has lost only to ranked teams this season: at then-No. 19 Michigan, against then-No. 10 Penn State and at then-No. 13 Wisconsin. Three losses by a combined 14 points.
The Gophers can also study recent Kinnick Stadium history. Three years ago, a 9-0 Michigan team went to Iowa City ranked No. 2 in the country and lost 14-13 to the unranked Hawkeyes. In 2017, Iowa was at home when it blew out then-No. 3 Ohio State 55-24, a loss that effectively kept the Buckeyes from the College Football Playoff.
This Hawkeyes team has yet to give up more than 24 points in a game; Wisconsin was the first team to reach that mark Saturday when the Badgers beat Iowa 24-22 on Saturday. The Gophers have scored 28 or more points in all of their games, including against Penn State, which came into Saturday with the No. 2-ranked defense in the nation.
The Gophers’ 1999 victory in Iowa City came over an Iowa team that went 1-10. The Hawkeyes’ sole victory that season was a 24-0 shutout of Northern Illinois. It was coach Kirk Ferentz’s first victory as Iowa coach. It was also one of the first games for a certain Huskies freshman receiver: P.J. Fleck.
While Fleck has experienced success at Iowa when he was a graduate assistant on Ohio State’s coaching staff in 2006, that was the outlier. He returned to Iowa in 2013, his first season as the coach at Western Michigan, and the Broncos lost 59-0, finishing the season at 1-11.
“I remember that one very clearly. It was a long day for the Western Michigan Broncos,” Fleck said, adding Ferentz said something to him after the game that has stuck with the coach since. “… He probably doesn’t even remember what he said, but it was some words of encouragement that help when you’re going through a program change and taking over a program that hadn’t won for a long time at that level.”
When Fleck signed his new seven-year, $33 million contract a week ago, he mentioned how programs such as Iowa and Wisconsin have been able to build “cultural sustainability” throughout the years, mostly built off longtime coaches.
Ferentz, in his 21st season, is a pillar of that.
“Consistency. I think that’s the biggest word when you think of what he has done,” Fleck said. “He’s carried over the tradition from [20-year coach] Hayden Fry, put together an elite staff and has been consistent over a long period of time. … There’s been highs. There’s been lows. There’s been Rose Bowl [appearances]. There’s been some OK years. But again, there’s consistency.”
Fleck said opponents always know what they are getting with Hawkeyes football because there’s an identifiable brand. No new strategies or game plans every couple years.
“They are who they are. And that’s what I respect about them,” Fleck said. “That’s what I respect about Kirk Ferentz.”
Fleck is only in his third season with the Gophers, far-off from any multiple-decade tenure. But he does have a chance now to remedy some of those past ills.
In both his personal history and the Gophers’.
Big Ten honors
Two Gophers earned Big Ten conference weekly awards Monday. Quarterback Tanner Morgan is the co-offensive player of the week and safety Antoine Winfield Jr. is the co-defensive player of the week.
Morgan completed 18 of 20 passes for 339 yards and three touchdowns vs. Penn State. He became only the second FBS quarterback in the past 20 years to have multiple games in a single season where he completed 90% of his passes (minimum 20 attempts).
Winfield tied for a game-high 11 tackles (nine solo) and made two interceptions. Both interceptions led to Gophers TDs.