This is a big time for football in the state of Minnesota, and maybe as exciting a combined start for the Vikings and the Gophers as we have had in decades.

First we talk about the Gophers' great nonconference run, and then we talk about new Vikings standout defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson and how far the Vikings can go this season.

The Gophers haven't won a Big Ten championship in 51 years, so coach P.J. Fleck was asked, after a 3-0 start that has his team feeling good going into conference play on Saturday at Maryland, whether he can break that streak and win at Minnesota.

"I would not have come here if I didn't think you could win at the University of Minnesota," Fleck said. "You definitely can win at the University of Minnesota. All the reasons why we think we can't, we can. That's why we're winning. There is a million reasons why we can.

"It's going to take a lot of resolve, a lot of belief, a lot of vision, a lot of people to be able to change their own perceptions, thoughts, ideas, but it definitely can be done. We would not have come here if we didn't believe we could do that. We have already started that process."

Who would have thought that in the long history of the Gophers no coach — not Glen Mason or Jerry Kill or Lou Holtz or Murray Warmath or Bernie Bierman — had ever started his first two seasons 3-0 until Fleck did it this season.

But Fleck said while he was pleased with the news, it's part of a bigger picture for him.

"I don't think you get any awards for that, but it is something we're building," he said. "We're looking forward to building this culture one game at a time. We have an incredible coaching staff, we have a plan, we have a vision, and you have to give our kids a ton of credit so far with the amount of adversity they have already faced.

"Whether it's with [the injury to running back] Rodney [Smith] or with the youth, the ability of them to be able to look at it from one-game seasons and be able to play their best and play as good as they possibly can play, you have to give them credit. They deserve all the credit for the start, but we're 0-0 this week and got to start over."

Freshman ready early

The Gophers are underdogs for the first time this season as they head to Maryland for their Big Ten opener.

Fleck knows Maryland interim head coach Matt Canada very well. When Fleck was a wide receiver at Northern Illinois from 1999-2003, Canada was on the staff there as a running backs coach before being promoted to quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator.

He expects a dynamic Terrapins offense on the field Saturday.

"He is very creative. He has always changed with the times," Fleck said. "Their offense is really built on getting their skill [players] the ball all the time.

"Everybody touches the ball in his system. Everybody has a chance to do something with it. It's a little similar to option-type football where you have to be incredibly sound and incredibly disciplined on defense or it is a touchdown. They have an enormous amount of skill."

One of the big early surprises this season has been how well Bryce Williams and Mohamed Ibrahim have stepped in as freshman.

Fleck said he remains confident in this young team, even if he's surprised at how early the freshmen had to be ready.

"I'm surprised that Bryce is playing so much, because of [injured senior running back] Shannon [Brooks] and Rodney's injuries," Fleck said. "But with him and Mohamed Ibrahim I think we have a good one-two punch that is going to help us get to a point where then we can get Shannon back for a few weeks — four weeks, when Shannon is feeling good enough to do that. But Bryce is a young man that is incredibly competitive and he came here for a reason, and that is to play. He has improved from Game 1 to Game 3, probably better than any player on our football team.

"A lot of the freshmen are playing. We've played close to 30 freshmen already. Most of them are in very key roles — whether it's Zack [Annexstad] at quarterback or Bryce Williams at running back, or Rashod Bateman at wide receiver or Blaise Andries on the offensive line, Terell Smith at the corner position — we have a ton of guys playing as freshmen. It's just part of the maturation process. It is what we expected to be in Year 2."

Richardson dominant

Through two weeks Vikings defensive end Richardson is tied for second in the NFL in quarterback hits with seven and he has been an instant impact player on a team loaded with them.

Richardson also was the first Vikings player to get fined for the new roughing-the-passer penalty that has been the talk around the league this week.

He said for the most part he understands that defensive players are going to always be the ones getting fined for making plays.

"You know what can I say? Is it fun fretting every year that they make a rule change and it's something the defense has to do?" Richardson asked. "That's just what it is. The fine system itself is for defensive players, I believe."

When asked what a player can do to keep himself from getting penalized, Richardson said there are few options.

"Just be aware as best as you can, but you're not going to hold it over your head if you make a football play," he said. "Just be smart."

Richardson, who played junior college football at College of the Sequoias in California before transferring to Missouri, said that when it came to his decision to sign with the Vikings as a free agent, the coaches played a key role.

"Family-oriented team," he said. "Coach Dre [defensive line coach Andre Patterson] definitely was a reason why I came here, Coach Zim [head coach Mike Zimmer], a strict guy, don't mind playing for a guy like that who knows his stuff."

Did he know about Zimmer before signing?

"I heard a lot about him," Richardson said. "My agent told me a lot about him. I didn't know a lot about Coach Zim, but he gave me his history and his rundown of the teams he has coached and the defenses he has coached and how they have done in the NFL and what he needed out of a three-tech."

So far the results have been great for both Richardson and the Vikings.

You have to wonder if the 27-year-old former first-round draft pick will command a big payday if he has a great season.

If he does, the Vikings may have a hard time re-signing him because of their salary cap situation.

Still, for Richardson, joining last year's No. 1 defense has been exactly what he expected.

"I wanted to come in and add to that as best as possible," he said. "I'm going for an All-Pro season. … That means we're chasing something bigger than the Pro Bowl."

Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. Monday and Friday, 2 p.m. Friday and 10:30 a.m. Sunday. •