After the Gophers beat Purdue on the last Saturday of September, Yahoo Sports posed the question on Twitter:
“Are you ready to live in a world where Minnesota could be 8-0?”
A photo of the Gophers’ October schedule accompanied the tweet, showing struggling opponents Illinois, Nebraska, Rutgers and Maryland. The next week in a news conference after beating Illinois, that question came again, in so many words — this time directly to coach P.J. Fleck.
Fleck flashed back to that moment after his No. 13 team beat Maryland 52-10 a week ago, realizing its apparent destiny to become undefeated at 8-0 for the first time since 1941.
“I’m sitting there thinking, ‘That is so far away,’ ” Fleck said. “But if we would have focused on that, we would not be where we’re at.”
The Gophers have taken the old cliché of taking it one game at a time right into their biggest game in decades, when No. 5 Penn State, also undefeated, comes to TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday. With the Gophers holding a two-game lead in the Big Ten West and riding a 10-game winning streak dating back to last season, some fans are already thinking ahead to the Big Ten Championship Game, or the Rose Bowl, or even the College Football Playoff semifinals.
But Penn State is just the first in a torrent of trials the Gophers will face in November. August through October featured a softer schedule and opponents with key injuries. That all changes, starting this week.
“Most people are waiting to see this Penn State game to find out [if the Gophers are the real deal],” said Glen Mason, former Gophers coach and current Big Ten Network analyst. “… I think most people would agree: This is the first real test.”
After Penn State, the Gophers travel to No. 19 Iowa, where they haven’t won since 1999. They then go to Northwestern, a 1-6 team that the Gophers haven’t beaten in the past two years, including a 39-0 drubbing at Ryan Field in 2017. The Gophers finish the regular season at home against No. 18 Wisconsin, a rival primed for revenge after the Gophers won Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the first time in 14 years last season.
Penn State, Iowa and Wisconsin all rank in the top six of scoring defenses. They also present formidable quarterbacks such as Penn State’s Sean Clifford and Iowa’s Nate Stanley. That’s something the Gophers haven’t yet encountered this year, from breaking in a new quarterback in the opener against South Dakota State to injuring Purdue’s Elijah Sindelar early in the game to Nebraska’s Adrian Martinez sitting out the Gophers matchup after hurting a leg the previous week. Meanwhile, the Gophers have been able to avoid major injury, minus quarterback Zack Annexstad’s loss early in training camp.
Ahead of the Gophers’ current bye week, Fleck reflected on “quirky little things” that have defined the Gophers’ season. The backup quarterback trend is one. The Big Ten West not being as competitive as anticipated, with Nebraska, a popular pick to win, underperforming and Wisconsin dropping a shocker to lowly Illinois. Of all the Gophers’ previous opponents, only Georgia Southern and FCS team South Dakota State have winning records now.
But the Gophers have also enacted their own miracles, from Rashod Bateman’s one-handed catches to a forced fumble giving the Gophers a chance to win in the season opener, to Chris Autman-Bell wearing a size 11 instead of 13 shoe to keep his overtime-forcing catch inbounds at Fresno State.
“There’s hundreds of plays that I can think of that really made the season what it is,” Fleck said. “And when you have a season like this, you’re going to have to have plays like that. And this seems to be one of those years leading up to this point.”
Mason said he was disappointed with how the Gophers started the season, languishing in close nonconference wins while the run game stalled. But after the Big Ten opener, the Gophers now are beating conference foes in blowout fashion with an unstoppable rush.
That steady improvement has Mason feeling like the Gophers are “optimistically as ready as they could be” for the month they have ahead, referencing an old college football adage of “pretend in October and contend in November.”
Fellow Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo thought back to the 2016 season, before Fleck became coach, when the Gophers were a nine-win team but lost to three of their upcoming opponents: Penn State, Iowa and Wisconsin.
“They’re good. Better than we’ve expected. But they’ve been here before,” DiNardo said. “And if it’s going to be any different than Tracy Claeys’ last year, we’re going to find out … in the tough November.”
Even if the Gophers fall short of a dream season, DiNardo sees Minnesota’s future as “much more promising” than years past.
“[Fleck] obviously has a plan,” he said. “He’s got a culture. He’s got all that. And I think that’s really exciting. Whereas, even when Tracy won nine games, I didn’t really see a great future. Now, I see a great future.”