Sure, the destination is Detroit, not Pasadena, with not a palm tree in sight. And granted, the game will match a 6-6 team vs. a 7-5 squad on the day after Christmas. But for Gophers coach P.J. Fleck, the news that his team is going to the Quick Lane Bowl was the latest sign of progress for his program.
“It’s the next right step,’’ an upbeat Fleck said Sunday, after learning his Gophers will play Georgia Tech on Dec. 26 at Ford Field. “When we’re ready to take the next right step, we have to take it. That’s what we were ready to do at Wisconsin.’’
That result at Wisconsin — a 37-15 rout of the Badgers on Nov. 24 that gave the Gophers possession of Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the first time since 2003 — made Minnesota (6-6, 3-6 Big Ten) bowl-eligible after a one-year postseason absence. The Gophers’ possible destinations also included the Redbox Bowl in Santa Clara, Calif., and the Pinstripe Bowl in New York, but those bids went to 7-5 Michigan State and 7-5 Wisconsin, respectively. That put the Gophers in Detroit for the second time in four years. They beat Central Michigan 21-14 in the 2014 Quick Lane Bowl.
By winning two of their final three games and three of their final five, the Gophers reached a bowl in Fleck’s second year as coach. Along with the win at Wisconsin, Minnesota rolled over another bowl-bound team, Purdue, 41-10 on Nov. 10. And the Gophers did it with youth, with seven freshmen starting on offense.
“I’m really proud of our football team,’’ Fleck said. “It’s a team that found a way to get to 6-6. … It’s been a tremendous year. I think this team has overachieved in a lot of areas.’’
In Detroit, the Gophers will face a Georgia Tech team that is 7-5 overall and finished 5-3 in ACC play, good for second place in the Coastal Division. Yellow Jackets coach Paul Johnson will work his final game after 11 seasons at the Atlanta school. Johnson, 61, announced last week that he’s retiring.
“Minnesota will present a great challenge. I have a lot of respect for Coach Fleck, and I’m sure he’ll have his team ready to play,’’ Johnson said in a statement. “I’m excited to have the opportunity to coach this team one last time — it should be a great game.”
The Yellow Jackets are one of few teams in college football that employs a triple-option, run-based offense, and they lead the nation with 4,019 rushing yards (334.9 per game). They’ve thrown only 114 passes (9.5 per game) and are averaging 84.3 passing yards per game.
That throwback-to-the-1970s offense will present challenges, Fleck said.
“When you play a more traditional style of offense, that’s what your defense is made to stop,’’ he said. “… When you get a triple-option team, everything changes. People are going to play possibly different positions. You’re going to see some people who haven’t played a lot play more.”
Fleck will have a little more than three weeks to get his team prepared while still filling his 2019 recruiting class, which he plans to have complete for the Dec. 19 early signing day.
“It’s a tremendous challenge,’’ he said, “but it’s one of those challenges you really want to have, and we’re excited about it.’’