PISCATAWAY, N.J. – P.J. Fleck was sitting alone in the visiting locker room after pregame warmups Saturday, a quiet moment to collect his thoughts and prepare mentally for all the decisions and scenarios he would soon encounter.
Just then, Gophers football general manager Gerrit Chernoff interrupted that silence with breaking news. Undefeated and sixth-ranked Wisconsin lost to Illinois on a last-second field goal.
“I think you need to tell the team,” Chernoff said.
Fleck wasn’t crazy about Chernoff’s idea but “dropped it in” during his speech right before his team took the field.
“I dropped it in as proof that, if you don’t [play well], this could happen to you,” Fleck said. “That’s college football. Jim Tressel taught me a long time ago that the greatest thing about college football is you have no idea what’s going to happen. That’s what makes it really hard, and that’s what makes it beautiful at the same time.”
Translation: Don’t overlook lowly Rutgers.
Don’t laugh. No, seriously.
Anyway, his players heeded that warning, though Rutgers is so bad at football that losing to that “Big Ten team” would require a double dose of calamity.
The Gophers had a ragged start offensively but were never in danger of joining Wisconsin’s plight before sprinting away in the second half for a 42-7 win at SHI Stadium.
Did hearing that the Badgers lost despite being 31-point favorites get the team’s attention since the Gophers were 28-point favorites?
“I was focusing on us, so I didn’t really pay attention to that,” safety Antoine Winfield Jr. said.
College football revealed its wonderfully wacky side again with a seismic upset that directly affects the Gophers’ pursuit of a Big Ten West title.
The Gophers are now 7-0 for the first time since 1960. More importantly, they are the only team in their division without a loss with a home game against Maryland up next. Win that for an 8-0 start with Penn State coming to town and the buzz for Gophers football will swell.
The Gophers will be favored at home against Maryland but …
“You have to bring your best every single Saturday,” quarterback Tanner Morgan said. “Just making sure you’re on that edge and being able to play to the best of your ability no matter who your opponent is. You never know what can happen in this conference on any given Saturday.”
That’s a fact of life when trying to predict how players 18 to 20 years old will react to certain situations. There are countless examples of heavy favorites slogging through expected blowouts.
A date with Rutgers is the exception, as close to a sure thing as you’ll find. The Scarlet Knights have now been outscored 207-14 in five Big Ten games. They’re not even remotely competitive. Best wishes to the next Rutgers coach trying to fix that smoldering mess.
The Scarlet Knights managed only 28 yards of offense in the first half, including 1 yard passing, which, remarkably, represented improvement. They finished with only 1 yard passing for the entire game against Indiana last week.
Teams don’t always play at their peak in mismatch situations, and the Gophers weren’t sharp on offense in the first half. Morgan misfired on throws he usually makes. The defense smothered Rutgers until the offense got on track. It was only a matter of time.
The game became a breeze in the second half, setting the stage for an emotional moment. Four-time cancer survivor Casey O’Brien made his college debut as holder on extra points in the fourth quarter. His teammates mobbed him after the first kick, and then O’Brien hugged Fleck on the sideline for more than 30 seconds.
It was a wonderful moment that transcends college football. The lead story nationally in Week 8 of the season will be Illinois’ upset of Wisconsin. O’Brien holding for a kick then celebrating with his teammates and coach was the best story. Hands down.