Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck knows that the season opener against South Dakota State on Thursday at TCF Bank Stadium will not be an easy matchup, even if the Jackrabbits are an FCS team.
“They’re a really good football team. Some publications have them picked to win a national title — whether it’s North Dakota State or whether it’s them,” Fleck said. “They’re very talented. They have an All-American receiver [Cade Johnson] on offense, they have a linebacker [Christian Rozeboom] that’s All-American on defense. They’re really talented.
“They play really well together, they’re well-coached and they have had consistency in their program for a long time and they have a really good quarterback that they’re starting in his first start. … We just have to take care of us. We have to worry about us, play our best football that we possibly can, that we’re capable of playing and that’s what we’re going to focus on.”
In 2018, the Jackrabbits went 8-2 in the regular season and won two FCS playoff games before falling to North Dakota State at the Fargodome 44-21 in the national semifinals.
Las Vegas oddsmakers — at least, the ones that publish odds for FBS teams facing FCS teams — have made the Gophers only 13-point favorites heading into the contest.
“That’s for all of you guys to talk about, not me,” Fleck said.
The coach said he believes his team is ready to get its season underway.
“We’re constantly preparing all the way through the [game], but I’m proud of our players and the progress they’re making and how they’re connecting and how well they have come together,” he said. “But again, every season presents its own challenges. ... You never know what kind of football team you have until you play your first game. And we are looking forward to doing that.”
The Gophers will once again start their season on a Thursday evening, something they have done since 2012, when they played at UNLV; since then, they have always opened at home. And while that always has coincided with the Vikings’ final preseason game, not to mention the State Fair, Fleck said he likes that tradition for his club.
“I definitely do like it,” he said. “We have two bye weeks this year, and I think the Thursday night allows our fans to get there. It kicks off the weekend for everybody, gives everybody a long weekend. Not only that, it gives you an extra bye week, as well. So we have two bye weeks plus we have an extra-long weekend. It helps to be able to produce that much time when you’re going out west to face Fresno State the following week. I really like it.”
Roster nearly healthy
Are there any lingering injuries to returning players such as cornerback Antoine Winfield or running backs Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith?
“The injured players, those guys aren’t considered injured players anymore, they’re not,” Fleck said. “Antoine and Rodney have been practicing and playing for a while now. Shannon is still coming back. Again, his injury was a little bit different than Rodney’s, so he took a little bit longer to get back. But he’s getting closer and closer.”
Overall, Fleck said this is going to be a challenge, facing a South Dakota State team with a new quarterback and a new offensive coordinator, but he said he believes the Gophers are going to be fine if they stick to their game plan.
“You really have to focus on yourselves as much as you possibly can. You have to play your style of football, the best you possibly can — offense, defense and special teams,” he said. “You don’t know what they’re going to put on you, just like they don’t know what you’re going to put on them. There is no film to back it up. … You have to be ready for everything, you have to play sound, you have to put your players in the right position to be successful and then you have to be able to adjust and adapt throughout the course of the game.”
Mannion on Cousins
While all indications are that the Vikings backup quarterback will be Sean Mannion, with Kyle Sloter staying if the Vikings keep three on the roster, there’s no doubt both players will get a lot of snaps Thursday night at Buffalo with Kirk Cousins certainly sitting out the final preseason game.
Mannion spent the past four seasons with the Rams.
He said one of the big draws in coming to the Vikings was that he had not only familiarity with the system they were going to run — Rams coach Sean McVay had run a similar system and was the offensive coordinator for the Redskins from 2014 to ’16 — but also his familiarity with Cousins.
“He has helped me a lot. Kirk is a great guy, a great guy to work with,” Mannion said. “When coach McVay got the job in L.A. [in 2017] we were watching a ton of film of Kirk in Washington. It’s kind of funny, I feel like I have more of an appreciation for his game than most other players just because when Sean got the job in L.A., we watched a ton of Kirk’s tape. He is a great player, super smart, a great guy to be around.”
So far in the preseason, Mannion has completed 24 of 36 passes for 247 yards with two touchdowns and one interception, good for a 93.2 quarterback rating.
And while Cousins hasn’t missed a start over the past four seasons, Mannion — who has played in 10 career games, starting one — said there is no doubt that if it’s needed, he is ready to lead an NFL offense.
“I have total confidence in my abilities, and you know Kirk is a great player, and I am here to support him and be the best teammate I can and help him prepare,” he said. “But the most important part of being a backup quarterback is being ready to go in and win the game. I certainly feel, like I said, total confidence in my ability to do so, if need be.”
• Daniel Carlson is 4-for-4 on field goals and 7-for-7 on extra points with the Raiders this preseason. The Vikings’ fifth-round pick last year kicked a game-winning 33-yard field goal to beat the Packers last week.
• Ian Rapoport said on the NFL Network said that if the Vikings decide to trade Laquon Treadwell, one landing spot to watch is Jacksonville, where former Vikings offensive coordinator John DeFilippo is in the same role with the Jaguars.
• You have to wonder if the Twins should have tried to keep Eduardo Escobar instead of trading him to Arizona last year. The switch hitting infielder entered Wednesday fourth in the NL in RBI (103), 14th in home runs (29) and 24th in slugging percentage (.517). There had been some thought the Twins could have resigned Escobar in the offseason after trading him last July, but the Diamondbacks re-signed him before he hit the free-agent market.