It has been a storybook season for Minnesota football – an 8-0 start for the first time since 1941, a 5-0 record in the Big Ten that last was achieved in 1961, a 10-game win streak that is tied for the third-longest active run in the nation and the program’s longest in 77 years.
But this surge of success for the 13th-ranked Golden Gophers, who host No. 5 Penn State in a Saturday showdown, almost ended before it began. They could have lost any one – or all three – of their nonconference games. They needed double overtime to outlast Fresno State, and defeated Georgia Southern on a touchdown pass with 13 seconds to play.
However, head coach P.J. Fleck, whose mantra of “Row the Boat” encourages sacrifice and teamwork, saw something in those early struggles that made him believe great achievements were ahead.
“You see the mental fortitude, you see the courage, you see the character of your team when games don’t go exactly to play or when you get challenged,” Fleck said after the Fresno State game. “You find a way to win, that says a lot about your football team.
“We’ve got to be better and [his players] know that. One thing I like about this team is they continue to come to work every single day ready to go. They have fun with each other. It’s a fun team to coach. They’re excited to get better and I think that bodes well for the future.”
The Golden Gophers, who needed a late touchdown to beat FCS power South Dakota State in their season opener, began Big Ten play with a 38-31 win over Purdue. Then they started to roll, and have outscored their last four opponents – Illinois, Nebraska, Rutgers, and Maryland – by a combined 168-41.
Of course, one could point out that those four opponents (combined record 14-22) don’t make up a murderers’ row of sorts, but the Gophers have grown in confidence and lead the Big Ten West by two games. They face a difficult final month, following the Penn State game with trips to Iowa and Northwestern before the season closes at home versus Wisconsin.
“They started out the year with games against the Jackrabbits and against the boys from Fresno and found ways to get wins,” said Penn State coach James Franklin. “As the year has gone on, like good programs and coaches do, they keep getting better.”
Fleck is in his third season at Minnesota after coming over from Western Michigan. Franklin said Fleck visited Franklin’s Vanderbilt program in 2013, his first year at Western Michigan, “and we’ve kind of stayed in touch ever since.”
He turned around the Western program from 1-11 his first season to 13-1 in his fourth and final year before bringing the “Row the Boat” motto to the Golden Gophers.
“Minnesota seems to have really bought into the culture of P.J. Fleck and everything that he sells,” ESPN football analyst Kirk Herbstreit said. “It seems like it’s really sinking in with his team.”
The Golden Gophers have been successful controlling the ball on offense, with an average time of possession of 34 minutes, 43 seconds to rank sixth in FBS, led by a strong rushing attack and an offensive line anchored by 6-foot-9, 400-pound tackle Daniel Faalele. By comparison, Penn State’s average possession time of 28:44 ranks 97th.
“I don’t even know if you’d call it old-school,” Fleck said. “It’s just the way I believe in football – running the football, controlling the clock, grinding out first downs, play-action pass, RPO games, run setting up the pass. I just feel like you have to be able to do that.”
Franklin said that forcing a change in the way the Golden Gophers operate will be a challenge.
“This is the style they want to play,” he said, “and part of our responsibility is try to get them out of the style they want to play and make the game go in a way they are not used to playing in. It’s obviously very challenging to do on the road, and it’s challenging to do against an opponent that’s had as much success as they have had, and they are confident right now.”
Ohio State kickoff set