The Gophers football team’s 7-0 start, its nine-game winning streak and its No. 17 ranking in the Associated Press poll are all signs that P.J. Fleck’s promise he could change the culture at the University of Minnesota is working.
He did the same thing at Western Michigan, turning a 1-11 record his first year in 2013 into a 13-1 record and Cotton Bowl appearance in his final year in 2016.
And while it took four seasons to turn that program around, Fleck really got the Gophers going in the right direction in the middle of his second season, when they won four of their final six games, including winning at Wisconsin for the first time in 24 years and beating Georgia Tech 34-10 in the Quick Lane Bowl.
The Gophers’ nine-game winning streak is their longest since 1942.
Did Fleck believe this kind of success was possible so soon? “That is the vision. That is the plan,” he said. “Whatever the [ranking] is, that’s the [ranking]. We want to do everything we can to win every game we play. That is the whole mission, the whole goal — run a really successful program, a life program, and find a way to be better than we were yesterday.”
The Gophers haven’t had a club like this in decades, and Fleck said the really fun part is watching how the team continues to grow each week.
The Gophers have won their past three Big Ten games by a combined score of 116-31.
“They just keep getting better. You know?” Fleck said. “I told them, at the end of the year we will look up and see how many games we won, see how well we did. And other than that we are putting our head down and we are rowing. We are just going.
“That’s all we have to continue to do, do everything we possibly can to be 1-0 each week. Starting this week this is the most important game of the year, period. The most important game of the year is this Maryland game. It’s a championship game. That’s how we’re treating it. At home and we would love everybody to come out and support us.”
It’s amazing, even though the Gophers are undefeated, ESPN gives them just a 2.8% chance of winning the Big Ten, according to its football power index.
ESPN gives them a 82.8% chance to beat Maryland, a 24.6% chance to beat Penn State, a 35.9% chance to beat Iowa, a 75.8% chance to beat Northwestern and just a 27.4% chance to beat Wisconsin at home.
Maryland has talent
The Gophers have been beating their opponents by huge margins, and they are 17-point favorites against Maryland on Saturday, but Fleck said there are no easy games in the Big Ten.
Maryland, at 3-4, has had an interesting season. The Terrapins lost to Penn State 59-0 and at Purdue 40-14. But they also beat then-No. 21 Syracuse 63-20 and Rutgers 48-7.
Fleck said the Maryland offense will pose some challenges, especially with a running game that has averaged 207.1 yards per game this season, third in the conference.
“They’re very talented, one of the most athletic teams we will face all year. They have great length, great team speed,” Fleck said. “They have quarterbacks [Josh Jackson and Tyrrell Pigrome] that can throw it and run it, dual-threat quarterbacks. They have a receiver [Dontay Demus Jr.] that could be drafted in the first round. They have running backs [Javon Leake and Anthony McFarland Jr.] who we know very well, who have played really well against us. Then you look on the defensive side of the ball and they have transfers and really great players. They have transfers from Clemson [linebacker Shaq Smith], Ohio State [linebacker Keandre Jones], Florida State [defensive back Marcus Lewis]. They’re really good, really athletic football team.”
Seniors are ready
While the Gophers start only two seniors on offense — running back Rodney Smith and wide receiver Tyler Johnson — the defense has eight senior starters.
“They are the heart of the defense,” Fleck said. “They have had a really good year. Everybody is leading in their own ways. We have relied on our seniors this year. Those are the guys who have been through the most in this football program. They have seen so much.
“And the more you see, whether it’s good or bad, and the more you respond to those things, the better you become as a person. Our players, especially our seniors, have done a great job of becoming better men.”
Fleck said the injury to senior linebacker Kamal Martin is still leaving him a game-time decision against Maryland, which was the best possible outcome.
But Fleck also thinks the linebackers group has really come along this year and can fill in if Martin has to miss the game.
“I think Thomas Barber has always kind of been the solid staple to our defense, really been the play-caller on defense. He has brought a lot of connection to everybody that comes onto our defense. He is the leader on defense,” Fleck said. “When you look at the other guys we have some guys who have played a lot of football for us, whether it’s Braelen Oliver, Mariano Sori-Marin, Thomas Rush, those guys have to keep getting better.”
The Vikings’ 19-9 victory over Washington on Thursday marked their first four-game winning streak since 2017, when Case Keenum — who started at quarterback for the Redskins but played for only a half because of a concussion — led the team on an eight-game winning streak that helped it claim the NFC North.
Keenum looked good before getting hurt Thursday, completing 12 of 16 passes for 130 yards, though he lost a fumble that stalled Washington’s first drive.
On top of that, the Redskins also featured Vikings great Adrian Peterson at running back, in his second season with the club. He showed flashes of his old talent when he rushed for 76 yards on 14 carries and got a nice ovation from the U.S. Bank Stadium crowd.
Peterson had faced the Vikings only once in his career, when he ran for 18 yards on six attempts when he was with New Orleans in 2017. He was traded to Arizona after playing only four games with the Saints.
The Vikings didn’t miss Peterson on Thursday as Dalvin Cook did a little bit of everything. He rushed for 98 yards and a touchdown and added five receptions for 73 yards.
The Redskins started Chase Roullier of Burnsville at center on Thursday, making it the second consecutive game that a Minnesota native started at center against the Vikings. Last week against Detroit it was Frank Ragnow, a Chanhassen graduate.
Even with the familiar faces, this was a dominant victory for the Vikings.