P.J. Fleck and his players like to talk about their “four walls.” Sometimes, quarterback Tanner Morgan will use his hands to form an imaginary room in describing the team’s collective focus in staying isolated from outside opinions within their four walls.
Out here, on the other side of those walls, a perception exists that Fleck and his players choose to ignore. The current circumstance feels like an opportunity for the Gophers football team, a definable moment that doesn’t come along every season.
The Gophers are 5-0 for the first time in 15 years. They entered the Top 25 in the coaches poll this week and earned enough votes to land just outside the AP’s Top 25. Their offense features extremely talented skill players. Their defense allowed zero touchdowns last week.
The Gophers play a home game Saturday against an identifiable brand program, Nebraska, that is 4-2 and might be without its starting quarterback. Oddsmakers list the Gophers as touchdown favorites.
They likely will be favored in the following two games as well, at Rutgers and home against Maryland. Thus, a win Saturday creates a conceivable path to 8-0 heading into a visit by Penn State, a matchup that would be an attractive choice for the first ESPN College GameDay extravaganza in Dinkytown.
Fleck wants no part of connect-the-dots scenarios.
“Everybody is going to be able to say what they want to say,” he said. “We’re focused on being better today than we were yesterday. That is the coach speak, but I’ve said it for seven years. At least I’m consistent.”
Gophers football has been historically consistent in moments that feel like a program tipping point. No need to go through every painful example of raised hopes, crushed optimism.
Let’s keep the focus on the present — this team, this moment and what it could mean from a big-picture perspective.
The Twins’ magic carpet ride ended with the thud of a quick postseason dismissal. The Vikings are the Vikings, never a Page 2 item. But Minnesotans rally around a hot start or successful season with the intensity of a cavalry charge, regardless of team or sport.
The Gophers athletic administration, under the leadership of AD Mark Coyle, has devoted hours upon hours in brainstorming different ideas that might solve sagging attendance. Several of their new initiatives have been creative and right on target.
They can’t do anything about way-to-soon forecasts of wintry weather Saturday that might affect attendance, but here’s the best marketing tool that won’t cost them a dime in consulting fees: Beat Nebraska. Then beat Rutgers and Maryland. Start 8-0 and watch this big-city sports market become a Gophers town. Guarantee it will happen.
It’s happened before, in 2003. The Gophers started 6-0 behind a high-scoring offense that featured a dynamic duo in Laurence Maroney and Marion Barber III.
Michigan came to town for a Friday night game in early October. Both teams were ranked in the Top 20. The metro buzzed all week with a palpable sense of anticipation and excitement. The Gophers had the public’s full attention. The announced Metrodome attendance of 62,374 was the largest crowd for an opponent other than Iowa or Wisconsin since 1985.
Again, no need to revisit gruesome particulars of that night because they have been retold to death. A legion of Gophers football fence-sitters still carry skepticism because of Michigan ’03. Emotional scars don’t wash off easily.
The current team can only affect the present, not what happened years ago. They seem to relish life in their bubble.
“Nothing from last year matters, nothing from last week matters,” senior defensive end Carter Coughlin said.
This is how Fleck wants it. He’s drilled that clichéd mantra into his acolytes so that they won’t get distracted by anything that might interrupt that day’s objective. He starts every pregame news conference by noting his team is “0-0 this week.” Players then repeat it.
They are human, though. Humans who read social media, pay attention to Big Ten standings and hear what outsiders are saying. Besides, expectations aren’t a bad thing when trying to spark interest and create momentum. Go ahead, enjoy the heck out of a big game on a mid-October Saturday. This is how college football should feel.
“What I’m excited about is our state, our community, the Twin Cities area, are all talking about Gopher football,” Fleck said.
The stage is theirs. A significant opportunity dangles right in front of them. It’s up to them to seize it.