Gophers football players were only able to remove one of P.J. Fleck’s shoes during the head coach’s crowd-surfing stint inside Folsom Field’s visiting locker room in Boulder, Colo., on Saturday.
After wins, the players’ goal is nab both shoes, but stealing that one white Nike can help represent the 100-games-coached milestone Fleck reached in a 30-0 rout of Colorado. Athletics director Mark Coyle presented Fleck with a specialty game ball and his wife Heather gifted him a commemorative coin.
“That’s awesome for him,” said Gophers defensive end Thomas Rush, who had two sacks against the Buffaloes.” I had no idea, but to hear that and know that it was a shutout, that’s great that we could do it for him.”
It was Fleck’s first shutout at Minnesota, and it comes two weeks after Ohio State ran wild in a 45-31 season-opening loss and a week after Miami (Ohio) was allowed back into the game before the U closed a 31-26 victory.
Fleck did his post-game radio interview with one socked foot before his shoe was retrieved. During the interview, he called Saturday’s game “pivotal.” Back with two shoes on, he clarified that comment in his next interview.
“We didn’t know what was going to come out,” Fleck said, adding they were “a little bit flat” against the RedHawks and “got ourselves in a hole” against the Buckeyes.
“I thought we handled business through four quarters” on Saturday, Fleck continued. “And that’s why I said pivotal, not for the season, just right now. Pivotal in the week that we needed to be able to show what kind of team we can be moving into the future.”
The win could be pivotal for the season, too. With Bowling Green (1-2) coming to Minnesota next week, the U can get off to a 3-1 start, which most fans — and likely those within the program, too — would have been thrilled to have with Ohio State on the schedule’s opening month.
Saturday’s road game had a distinct Outback Bowl vibe with Gophers fans traveling en masse to see a victory. What also could be similar to the 2019 season is Minnesota has a real chance to go on a winning streak.
After Bowling Green, which was picked to finish last in the Mid-American Conference East division, Minnesota travels to Purdue (2-1) to restart Big Ten play Oct. 2; the U then hosts Nebraska (2-2) and Maryland (3-0) before a road trip to Northwestern (1-2) and a home game against Illinois (1-3).
That means Minnesota has a foreseeable path to being 8-1 going to Iowa City to face the Big Ten front-running Hawkeyes on Nov. 13. Iowa has had a lights-out defense, and Minnesota showed one for the first time this season on Saturday.
The U was allowing 152 rushing yards per game (80th in the country) through two games, but sent the Buffaloes backwards with minus-19 yards rushing. Colorado’s leading rusher was backup quarterback Drew Carter (9 yards), and he didn’t come in until very late and against the U’s backups.
“We rallied around the football, tackled really well,” Fleck said. “I thought our game plan was really good.”
The U had zero sacks in the first two games but got four in Saturday’s first half. They had five tackles for lost yards in the opening eight quarters of the season and added four more on Saturday. They had two pass breakups across 120 minutes to start the season, and produced four in 60 on Saturday.
Minnesota had three takeaways in the first two games and added another on Saturday. (Special teams got a second turnover.) After Ohio State stacked up explosive plays over 20 yards and Miami had its fair share, too, Minnesota’s biggest play allowed on Saturday was a 12-yard pass.
“We talk about stopping the run, eliminating explosive passes and then creating takeaways,” linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin said. “We did all three of that. It starts with the guys up front. They were really dominate on the D-line and (Colorado) couldn’t really run the ball.”
While a shutout of a Power Five opponent is no easy feat, the Pac-12’s Buffaloes have been struggling all season. Through three games, they rank last among Power Five schools in both scoring and total offense.
For the Gophers to go on a winning streak, the defense will have to resemble more of what they showed on Saturday. And Fleck wasn’t willing to call Saturday’s blowout a compete game.
The U’s kicking had problems, primarily Matthew Trickett missing two field goals and an extra point. Plus, the U passing game is ancillary to the rushing attack for three weeks.
While they lost star running back Mohamed Ibrahim for the season, freshmen Mar’Keise Irving and Ky Thomas showed for the first time Saturday that they can complement promoted starter Trey Potts.
The U did get back injured No. 1 receiver Chris Autman-Bell on Saturday, and “CrAB” had six targets, four receptions for 79 yards. Quarterback Tanner Morgan has a reliable possession (and big-play) receiver back, and at some point, the passing game will have to lead the way to victory.
Fleck compared Saturday’s game to a glutenous meal at a fancy steakhouse, where you go big with the “48-ounce T-Bone tomahawk steak.”
“You ordered it, get the appetizers, you get the salad, get the soup and by the time you get (the steak), you only eat three quarters of it,” Fleck said. “We still left a lot of meat on the bone.”