With his campus located only a handful of miles from where George Floyd was murdered and COVID-19 battering his squad throughout the fall of 2020, Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck had to deal with more than just player departures from an 11-win team in 2019.
Every day brought new questions, difficult answers and uncertainty in all aspects of football and life, from wondering if the Gophers even would play to whether it mattered anyway. Amid those challenges, that Minnesota managed a 3-4 record with two overtime losses taught Fleck that his team’s character and resiliency was beyond reproach.
“Major adversity does two things in your life: It either pulls you apart, or brings you together,” said Fleck, who begins his fifth season with the Gophers. “That’s what it does, especially in a team format. I think this team had to deal with so much being that BLM and social justice and George Floyd was right here in the Twin Cities on top of the pandemic.
“Someone asked me the question the other day: ‘Who was your biggest mentor through 2020?’ And I said, ‘My team.’ I’ve never learned more from a football team than I learned from my team last year. And I hope they felt the same way in return. I think we’re closer than we’ve ever been as a team. It was a year that I don’t think anybody will ever forget, and that change has to happen. Period. And it has in our world.”
There were rough spots on the field, no question. Minnesota gave up 49 points in the season opener to Michigan and needed a touchdown with 14 seconds left to avoid a shutout against Iowa. Maryland rallied from a 17-point fourth quarter deficit to beat the Gophers in overtime. But when faced with the most impossible odds of all, Fleck’s troops pulled off one of his greatest coaching victories.
After a two-week layoff because of COVID, Minnesota was down 35 players (including several starters) when it traveled to Nebraska. Still, the Gophers dictated the game’s tempo, held the Cornhuskers to just one second-half field goal and ran out the final 4:42 with eight consecutive running plays to win 24-17.
“We were really close to canceling that game,” Fleck said. “The Big Ten gave us the green light to play. Internally it looked like you couldn’t because you had 35 players out, but if you could find a way to get on that field, our kids wanted to play. We weren’t worried about just the win or the loss; we were worried about playing.
“People ask me all the time, like that Nebraska game, how important was that? That’s a top-three win I’ve ever seen in my career and for all the reasons that have nothing to do with just football. It has to do with the type of team we have, and the type of team we have moving forward and what they were able to accomplish when everybody basically said there’s no way they get this done.”
The grit Minnesota displayed in the Nebraska victory and the following week in an overtime loss at Wisconsin has Fleck, his staff and the players believing in a carryover effect. A woefully inexperienced defense flopped in the first month but improved late in the season. It now has enough depth and new additions to mask some of its 2020 deficiencies. Tanner Morgan returns for his fourth season at starting quarterback and seeks a return to his 2019 form. Running back Mohamed Ibrahim, who was named the Big Ten’s top running back in 2020, ranked second nationally in rush yards per game and also comes back. Minnesota boasts perhaps the nation’s deepest and most experienced offensive line.