When it comes to bye weeks, Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck subscribes to the theory taught by Joe Novak, his coach at Northern Illinois, that time off never arrives at a bad time.
“Every time I’ve had a bye week as a head coach, it’s always comes at a perfect time,” Fleck said Monday. “It was at the perfect time for us.”
Coming off a 42-13 loss at Maryland in the Big Ten opener on Sept. 22, the Gophers used the extra time to regroup, self-assess and prepare for an eight-week grind through the heart of the conference season. They practiced three days last week and again Sunday, getting back into their routine in preparation for Saturday’s homecoming game against rival Iowa.
“Our team understands exactly what we did over the first four games,” said Fleck, whose team went 3-0 in nonconference games before falling to a barrage of big plays by Maryland. “We know why we had success, why we had failing. They came out with the mentality that we’re going to change it.”
The first thing the bye week should help change is the team’s health, especially at quarterback. True freshman starter Zack Annexstad suffered a left ankle injury Sept. 15 against Miami (Ohio) that limited his mobility at Maryland. The Terrapins sacked him four times, and Annexstad threw his first two interceptions of the season, one of which was returned for a touchdown.
“It’s feeling a lot better,” Fleck said of Annexstad’s ankle. “He’s had four great practices — hasn’t missed a practice at all. It’s healing up nicely.”
The most costly moment in Maryland came when safety Antoine Winfield Jr. suffered a season-ending left foot injury.
“You don’t replace him. You don’t replace him,” Fleck said, repeating himself for emphasis. “He’s one of the best players in the country.”
Jordan Howden, a true freshman walk-on, will have the first crack at Winfield’s spot, while Fleck said senior Antonio Shenault “is going to have to lead and help out in as many ways as he can.”
The bye week also gave the Gophers more time to deal with their grief over Nick Connelly, the former offensive tackle who died Sept. 19 after a four-month battle with an aggressive form of cancer. The entire team attended a celebration of Connelly’s life on Sunday at TCF Bank Stadium.
“It’s been a very emotional two weeks for a lot of the guys on the football team,” Fleck said. “… Hopefully, it put some closure in their minds where they can have peace and now feel like they have the ability to move on and live his life for him in a very inspiring way.”
• Defensive lineman Nate Umlor played in 11 games and started the final seven as a true freshman last season but hasn’t seen action yet in 2018. That’s by design, because Fleck said he plans to redshirt Umlor. “Nate Umlor will play at some point,” Fleck said, pointing to the new NCAA rule that allows players to participate in up to four games without losing a year of eligibility.
• The Oct. 13 game at Ohio State will start at 11 a.m. and be broadcast on either Fox Sports 1 or BTN.