Gophers coach P.J. Fleck’s office has knickknacks galore. From T-shirt blankets to helmets, little souvenirs collected throughout his coaching career.
A new addition appeared on the shelf behind his desk the day after the Sept. 14 victory against Georgia Southern. It’s a framed screen-grab of the Gophers lined up on their own 6-yard line at third-and-29, down four points with minutes to play.
While sitting in his locker room late at night once the Gophers had converted that down and more to win 35-32, Fleck remarked to his wife, Heather, and team general manager Gerrit Chernoff that he wanted that moment represented some way in a place he would see it often.
“It’s a powerful picture,” Fleck said, “Because at that moment, there were a lot of people who thought we were going to lose that game.”
Fleck added the hardest part of being the Gophers’ coach has been changing fans’ perceptions, and that even in a backs-to-the-wall situation like that, it’s not time to leave the stadium early.
“It just seemed like to a lot of people, that was going to be impossible,” Fleck said of the comeback. “I think it just shows what type of team we have.”
The Gophers still are figuring that out. While the team is one of just 23 undefeated squads in the FBS at 3-0, all those nonconference games have been narrow victories. With a trip to Purdue on Saturday to open Big Ten play, the Gophers have used a bye week to correct the self-inflicted misfires that have hobbled them so far.
On offense, Fleck said “fundamentals and details” have been key, such as not committing as many turnovers, including four lost fumbles and two interceptions. For defense, it’s winning first and second downs more consistently to force more third-and-longs. On special teams, not having one player break down, like on the muffed punt at Fresno State or blocked field goal against Georgia Southern.
Senior defensive tackle Sam Renner said specifically for the defensive line, it has to be more disruptive, getting off blocks quicker and not just staying in gaps. The defense has 10 tackles for a loss of 48 yards and six sacks.
Fleck said on his radio show Tuesday the players held two player-led meetings during the bye week. And those might have helped the team put its early results into perspective.
“The past two years, we have kind of won the first three games and then were on our high horse and then we end up playing Maryland, and we kind of got knocked down,” Renner said. “But we’re being very careful this year to recognize that once you get into the Big Ten play, anybody can beat anybody.”
Renner and Fleck both have mentioned how close conference games are inevitable and hearkened to Northwestern last season winning many tight games and ultimately taking the Big Ten West title.
Sophomore quarterback Tanner Morgan said the reason the Gophers have excelled in those late-game desperation scenarios comes down to several factors: Practicing chaotic circumstances, coaches game-planning the red zone and having playmakers that grant the offense confidence amid the stress.
The third-and-29 was an example and became one of just two plays Fleck has framed. The other, which resides at his house, depicts his former team Western Michigan beating Ball State 42-38 in 2014, surmounting a 21-point deficit. It spurred the Broncos to a six-game winning streak.
“That is when the whole program shifted,” Fleck said.