His team delivered its most eye-opening performance of the season on Saturday, going toe-to-toe with now second-ranked Ohio State in front of more than 100,000 for the better part of four quarters. In the end, P.J. Fleck’s Gophers lost 30-14 in a game they led twice in the first quarter and trailed by only six points with 15 minutes to play.
“We went there to win a football game,’’ Fleck said Sunday on his WCCO Radio appearance. “We didn’t win a football game.’’
A moral victory? No, Fleck wasn’t having any of that. Instead, his team might have emerged with a morale victory, one that showed its potential going forward as it tries to end a three-game losing streak that coincides with the beginning of Big Ten play. The Gophers sit at 3-3 with six games remaining, with plenty left to accomplish this season. Sure, they won’t be winning the Big Ten championship, but bowl eligibility remains within reach and continued improvement would bode well for the future for a team that started seven freshmen on offense on Saturday.
“I’m focused on this young team growing and getting better. That’s exactly what we’re doing,’’ Fleck added. “… We’ve got to go win football games, though.
“We’re drawing a line. Season One was the first six [games], and now we’ve got Season Two coming up with the last six.’’
With that in mind, here’s what awaits the Gophers in the second half:
• Saturday at Nebraska: The race to six wins and bowl eligibility resumes for the Gophers in Lincoln, where the Cornhuskers have started a season 0-6 for the first time in school history. Three of Nebraska’s losses are by a combined 13 points, and they nearly broke through at Northwestern before blowing a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter and falling 34-31 in overtime.
The Gophers and Huskers share some similarities. Both start true freshmen at quarterback who are throwing to standout wide receivers. Nebraska’s Adrian Martinez to Eden Prairie’s JD Spielman, and the Gophers’ Zack Annexstad to Minneapolis’ Tyler Johnson. And for both teams, defense has been an issue in Big Ten play, with the Gophers allowing 40 points per game (12th in the conference) and Nebraska 43.3 (14th). The Huskers are five-point favorites.
• Oct. 26 vs. Indiana: Like the Gophers, the Hoosiers (4-3, 1-3) hung with Ohio State, trailing 28-20 at halftime before falling 49-26. Peyton Ramsey has been solid, passing for 1,624 yards and 12 TDs. This Friday night game will be Indiana’s first visit to TCF Bank Stadium, and the Gophers have won four of the past five in the series.
• Nov. 3 at Illinois: The Fighting Illini (3-3, 1-2) have something the Gophers don’t so far — a Big Ten win. Of course, that came against Rutgers, a team that Minnesota doesn’t have the luxury of playing this season. Illinois is improved from last season, but this is one the Gophers need to win.
• Nov. 10 vs. Purdue: The Boilermakers (3-3, 2-1) are on a three-game win streak in which they are averaging 39.3 points per game, and David Blough has passed for an average of 333.7 yards in those wins. He’ll present a stiff challenge for the Gophers secondary. This could be a swing game for Minnesota in the hunt for bowl eligibility.
• Nov. 17 vs. Northwestern: Like Purdue, the Wildcats (3-3) have caught fire and sit atop the Big Ten West at 3-1. They’ll meet the Gophers after a three-game stretch of facing Wisconsin, Notre Dame and Iowa. The teams have swapped home wins in the past four seasons, and it’s at TCF this year.
• Nov. 24 at Wisconsin: Badgers quarterback Alex Hornibrook endured a brutal night — 7-for-20 for 100 yards and two picks — in a 38-13 loss at Michigan on Saturday. Wisconsin (4-2, 2-1) once was considered a College Football Playoff contender. Now, maybe it’s not a foregone conclusion that Paul Bunyan’s Axe stays in Madison.
Randy Johnson covers college football for the Star Tribune. Twitter: @RJStrib E-mail: rjohnson@startribune.