P.J. Fleck strode to the podium, looked over the stat sheet, then started to pour his heart out.
His Gophers football team had just defeated Fresno State 21-14 on Saturday night at TCF Bank Stadium and did so by rallying from a 14-13 fourth-quarter deficit and turning back the Bulldogs when they drove inside Minnesota’s 5-yard line with less than 1:30 left.
The Gophers (2-0) also did that without their rock of a running back, senior Rodney Smith, who left the game for good after suffering a left leg injury on the third play from scrimmage.
“I’ve been proud of a lot of football teams in my career. But there’s a different level when you become really proud of a football team. Tonight, this is one of those — ooh, boy,’’ Fleck said, pausing to collect his thoughts, “this is one that that is up there. This is one that I’ll remember no matter what.’’
That Fleck would show such emotion is understandable given the events that transpired. His team relied on true freshmen at several of the most important positions — quarterback, running back, wide receiver and cornerback — and turned in a resilient effort, especially in the fourth quarter.
“You look out there at one point, and every one of your playmakers besides [junior receiver] Ty Johnson is a freshman,’’ Fleck said. “They’ve never been in a situation like that before, and you don’t know how they’re going to react.’’
One of the true freshmen, quarterback Zack Annexstad, reacted with poise by igniting the key offensive play of the game. With the Gophers down 14-13 and facing third-and-9 from their 44 in the fourth quarter, Annex-stad eluded a heavy pass rush, reversed field, sprinted toward the left sideline and delivered a strike to a leaping Johnson, who got one foot inbounds for a 13-yard gain. That led to Seth’s Green’s go-ahead touchdown run and two-point conversion pass with 3:28 left.
“That was the game-changing play, honestly,’’ said linebacker Blake Cashman, a senior who led the defense with 10 tackles. “Crazy play by Tyler and hat’s off to Zack to make it happen.’’
During those tense fourth-quarter moments, Fleck experienced another example of how calm and cool his young quarterback is.
“Typical Zack Annexstad,’’ the coach said. “He comes over to me right on the final drive, which is probably not the best time to come over to me. Looks over at me and smiles, ‘Isn’t this fun?’ ’’
The Gophers’ top playmaker on defense, safety Antoine Winfield Jr., made that late Minnesota score stand up by intercepting a halfback option pass in the end zone with 1:18 to play. After initially being fooled on the play, Winfield hustled back into the end zone, leapt to snare the ball away from tight end Jared Rice and planted one foot inbounds for the interception.
“When you get your best people to become your best players and make the plays you need them to make in critical situations,’’ Fleck said, “now you’re starting to have something.’’
That the comeback came against Fresno State, a veteran, 10-win team that played for the Mountain West title last year, made it all the better for the Gophers. There’s a strong argument that it’s Fleck’s most important win so far in his two years at Minnesota. And how it was accomplished showed a team that’s bonding quickly.
“It was a team win. We needed everybody,’’ Winfield said. “When I look back on it, I’ll just remember the feeling of how we all came together and were connected.’’
His coach will, too.
“This group is really close,’’ Fleck said. “When I first got here, that was not the case. They’re very close, and they’ve got each other’s backs.’’