The Gophers are 18-point underdogs at home to a hated rival that stands on the doorstep of the College Football Playoff. Has the battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe been smothered in more maroon doom-and-gloom in recent memory?

A season that has produced more struggles than celebrations has dampened anticipation for the longest-running rivalry game in major college football. Gophers fans seem to be bracing for the worst-case scenario just as sure as winter soon will sock us in the nose.

The Wisconsin Badgers are unbeaten and have won 13 consecutive meetings with their neighbors. The Gophers just lost to Northwestern 39-0 and have two Big Ten wins.

This one qualifies as a long shot.

Let’s leave predictions to others. I’m more curious about optics. How will the Gophers respond against a championship-caliber team after looking mentally checked out last week?

The Gophers can shape the way we view their progress in P.J. Fleck’s first season — or lack thereof — by how they compete on the most important Saturday of their season.

Will they show grit and fight against a more talented team? That’s No. 1 on the list. A few others: Receivers catch passes that hit them in the hands. Defensive linemen hold their ground. Defensive backs take proper angles in pursuit. And Demry Croft looks commanding in directing the offense.

Fleck pinned last week’s clunker solely on turnovers. True, the Gophers gave themselves zero chance to win with so many giveaways, but their focus reeked of a disinterested team. That left a bad impression.

“I never questioned their worth ethic, their how, their energy, their passion,” Fleck said. “We’ve had our challenges.”

Opinions of Fleck’s inaugural season likely are formed by how deeply a person has examined those challenges. A clear divide exists between those who trust Fleck’s vision and those who view Year 1 as a bust. In truth, nothing definitive can be established yet.

One can maintain patience in allowing a coach to implement his plan and sign his own recruits while also feeling disappointed in the early results.

Context matters, too. It’s overly simplistic and surface-skimming to look at nine wins last season and expect duplication as a baseline. Sports aren’t static.

Injuries, suspensions, expulsions and holes in the depth chart have forced Fleck to use too many players who are not ready — or not good enough — to play in the Big Ten. That’s especially true at quarterback, wide receiver and secondary.

That, however, doesn’t excuse back-to-back losses to open the Big Ten season and also that debacle last week. The Gophers looked emotionally flat and lacking focus against Maryland. That’s on Fleck. A week later, they blew a lead at Purdue with two minutes remaining when their defense crumbled.

Neither of those teams has a winning record right now. Win both games, or even one of them, and the picture looks a little different.

“Five wins is not exactly where everybody wants to be,” Fleck said. “But it’s a start.”

Growing pains don’t mean a new coach will fail in the long term. Nor do Fleck’s bold promises guarantee that he will turn his program into a Big Ten West power on par with the Badgers. But he deserves more than one season before anyone renders a verdict.

One positive: Fleck has demanded accountability of his players at the risk of on-field success. He benched and suspended Croft for disciplinary reasons even though he was their best option at QB.

He suspended senior safety Duke McGhee for rules violations when the secondary was in shambles. He has suspended, demoted or benched other players for various reasons.

Fleck hasn’t put winning first, if it meant sliding on discipline. Would their record be better without those punishments? Who knows, but holding players accountable should pay dividends in the long run.

In the short term, the most meaningful rivalry game of the season awaits. The Axe trophy case in the Gophers complex has sat empty for a long time.

The Badgers are a terrific team. The Gophers are big underdogs for a reason. This is their chance to reshape how people view them.

 

chip.scoggins@startribune.com