Throughout spring practice and training camp, Gophers coach P.J. Fleck emphasized situational football. The ability to know the situation — such as the difference in importance between a third-and-2 play in the second quarter and a similar spot late in the fourth — can decide who wins or loses.
In last week's 37-34 overtime loss at Northwestern, the Gophers failed in key situations. And that has led to a different type of situational football — this one with their schedule. Suddenly, the importance of Saturday's homecoming game against Louisiana has ramped up.
At 2-2, the Gophers need four more victories to qualify for a bowl game. Having lost to Northwestern — the team expected to occupy the Big Ten West Division cellar — casts uncertainty on their ability to achieve that goal. They certainly will be underdogs against No. 2 Michigan and No. 4 Ohio State and likely will be against Iowa and Wisconsin.
If they don't win any of those four games, they would need to sweep contests against Louisiana, Michigan State, Illinois and Purdue to reach six wins. Their margin for error largely disappeared in those final 15 minutes in Evanston.
The Gophers have been in this situation before and have recovered to finish strong. Last year, a three-game losing streak left them at 4-3 before they won four of the next five to go 8-4, earning a bid to the Pinstripe Bowl, which they won. In 2021, they lost to Bowling Green as 31-point favorites but responded with four consecutive wins, went 8-4 in the regular season and won the Guaranteed Rate Bowl.
"A few things,'' Fleck said this week. "One, winning is really hard. Two, every loss is tough. And three, the quote-unquote tougher losses build the biggest comebacks.''
In that spirit, Fleck on Sunday showed his team video clips of successful teams throughout sports that squandered big leads and lost. The message is that the response is what matters.
"It happens. We don't want it to happen. It usually doesn't happen to us,'' Fleck said. "And when it does, that's why people are so shocked about it. And that's a good thing because it doesn't happen often.''
In Fleck's seven seasons in Dinkytown, the Gophers have had one other fourth-quarter collapse after leading by double figures. In the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season, they led Maryland by 17 points early in the fourth quarter before falling 45-44 on a missed extra-point attempt in overtime.
In preparing for a 3-1 Ragin' Cajuns team that is averaging 38.8 points per game, Fleck and his coaching staff have emphasized a meticulous approach that might feel mundane but is needed to maintain consistency. The mistakes against Northwestern came at all three facets — offense, defense and special teams — and players and coaches alike consider them correctable through work.
"We're going to learn from the opportunity of not being successful and know why all those things matter and why the attention to detail matters,'' Fleck said.
Quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis feels the sense of urgency that a .500 record brings to a team that aspires to win the Big Ten West. He believes this team hasn't scratched the surface of what it can accomplish.
"Just knowing that we haven't put everything together yet, that's a huge motivation for all the guys,'' he said. "We've done a lot of good things. We've also done a lot of bad things. But the game when we all come together, it's going to be a very special team.''
Reaching a bowl game won't guarantee a special season, but it would be a step in the right direction. The journey toward that goal resumes Saturday morning. A victory over Louisiana would be a positive development for a team on a two-game skid. Co-offensive coordinator Greg Harbaugh Jr. liked what he saw from the players' ability to put last week's result in the past while still learning from it.
"No matter what the situation is, they bounce back,'' he said. "You should have seen Tuesday's practice after that loss and the way those guys bounce back. It's all about the response and how we go about our business.''