MADISON, WIS. — The past week for the Gophers was circle-the-wagons time. They endured an emotional, 13-10 loss to Iowa on Nov. 19, a defeat that ended their chances of advancing to the Big Ten Championship Game and left them with a 7-4 record before a trip to rival Wisconsin to finish the regular season.
Coach P.J. Fleck wanted his football team focused on its task at hand and to ignore any outside noise. There was much of that, most of the critical nature, following the Gophers' eighth consecutive loss to the Hawkeyes.
On Saturday, when Wisconsin's final pass fell incomplete from the Minnesota 25-yard line as time expired, the Gophers emerged from Camp Randall Stadium with Paul Bunyan's Axe for the second consecutive year, thanks to a 23-16 comeback victory.
"The internal message stayed the internal message,'' Fleck said, crediting his players.
Because Fleck coached the Gophers to an 11-2 record and top 10 final ranking in 2019, expectations have increased within the fan base. He considers this a good thing.
His week leading to the Wisconsin game wasn't pleasant, and he received pointed criticism for his offensive game plan, which relied heavily on the run game and little on the pass.
After the Gophers beat Wisconsin for the third time in five years, Fleck showed that, yes, he sees and hears the world outside the football complex.
"I remember people, any time they'd see us, would say, 'Just beat Wisconsin, you can stay forever. Just beat Wisconsin, you can stay forever,' '' Fleck said during his postgame news conference, recalling his hiring in January 2017. "Well, we've beaten Wisconsin twice [before Saturday], and you all wanted me fired last week.''
That statement raised eyebrows for Minnesota reporters who couldn't recall a mainstream media member calling for Fleck's job last week. Maybe the coach was including those people weighing in on social media, which always are ripe with fire-the-coach demands from those behind a username instead of a real one.
The Gophers' victory Saturday came in large part because Fleck and his offensive staff did embrace the passing game, trusting redshirt freshman quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis to the point that he completed 19 of 29 passes for 319 yards and two touchdowns. When the game needed to be won in the fourth quarter, Kaliakmanis led back-to-back drives that produced Matthew Trickett's tying 27-yard field goal with 7:58 left and Le'Meke Brockington's 45-yard touchdown catch for the decisive points with 3:40 to play. In the fourth quarter, Kaliakmanis went 7-for-9 for 142 yards.
"Our quarterback played really special,'' Fleck said. "And he did some things that, wow! Like 500-level things.''
It wasn't only Kaliakmanis that got in on the aerial action. Wide receivers Daniel Jackson, Dylan Wright and Brockington combined for 12 catches for 224 yards and two TDs. This came from an offense that had one touchdown pass total in seven Big Ten games from Oct. 1 through Nov. 19.
"We had some guys tonight where the light bulb went on,'' Fleck said. "We need that because there's a lot of really good football players [on the team]. … We showed incredible growth tonight, not only for now but for the future. And that's what you want to see.''
Fleck hopes those young players can keep developing as the Gophers prepare for their bowl game, which will be determined Dec. 4. It would appear that Minnesota could end up in one of these four games: the ReliaQuest on Jan. 2 in Tampa, Fla.; the Music City on Dec. 31 in Nashville; the Pinstripe on Dec. 29 in New York; or Duke's Mayo on Dec. 30 in Charlotte, N.C.
As the smell of victory cigars make its way from the visitors' locker room to the interview room, Fleck reflected on the significance of the win and how his team accomplished it.
"I couldn't be more proud of our team,'' he said. "That was a huge win for us — just a huge win.''