MINNEAPOLIS — After last week’s monumental win over Penn State, many of the Gophers football players celebrated by … watching more football. True fans of the sport, Antoine Winfield Jr. and his roommates got home and immediately turned on the Alabama-LSU game.
Asked this week how he thinks his team stacks up to those two titans, Winfield said, “I definitely feel like we’re in the ballpark.”
The Gophers can prove as much this weekend.
Yes, Minnesota proved something last weekend by knocking off then-No. 4 and previously unbeaten Penn State at TCF Bank Stadium. The Gophers established themselves as “for real” — a team that can compete with the nation’s best on any given weekend.
The next step is to do it every single weekend.
Minnesota, like Penn State, had a bye week to prepare for last weekend’s titanic tilt that came with a massive buildup for its biggest football game in recent memory. The Gophers hadn’t been 8-0 in forever and were underdogs by a touchdown.
The atmosphere was electric. The energy was almost entirely pro-Gophers. There are challenges that come with handling that situation and using that energy to your advantage, and the Gophers did so beautifully.
But this week is something entirely different. Seven days after earning one of the bigger wins in program history, Minnesota now has to play … another one of its bigger games in program history.
It’ll do so now not as the hunter but as the hunted. Since January, coach P.J. Fleck has told his team that, at some point, it would have a target on its back. That time has come. This isn’t a “hope” thing anymore for the Gophers. Minnesota, ranked No. 8 in the nation, will no longer catch anyone by surprise. Most believe this program will do enough in its final three regular-season games to clinch the Big Ten West championship.
Expectations have arrived.
“Sooner or later, you have enough pressure and you are succeeding, the pressure is going to get so high that the target becomes bigger and bigger and bigger,” Fleck said.
The 20th-ranked Hawkeyes are drawing their bows and taking aim. Iowa has three losses to top-tier teams this season — all by one score or less. The Hawkeyes would love to knock off their arch rival to net a win over another ranked opponent and flip the narrative on their season.
Kinnick Stadium — a recent house of horrors for the Gophers — will surely be rocking on Saturday afternoon. The Gophers say pressure is earned. They’re about to step into another cooker.
For that, they say they’re ready. Pressure is something the Gophers have prepared for since January. Senior defensive lineman Winston DeLattiboudere recalled offseason lifting days in which head strength and conditioning coach Dan Nichol would look down at his notepad and call out to players to compete against one another. The others in the weight room would then pick sides as to who they thought would win. So the individuals involved were competing in a mano-a-mano duel not only themselves but for their teammates.
“Inside our four walls, we put more pressure on ourselves than I feel like anybody else could put on us externally,” DeLattiboudere said.
Perhaps, but the external expectations are mounting by the week. Dreams are now consisting not just of roses, but championships.
The Gophers will have to play great football to leave Iowa on Saturday still unbeaten, just as they had to seven days prior.
A week isn’t much time to come down from the euphoria of a field-storming and jump into another all-important game. Remember how poorly the Vikings performed in Philadelphia following their miracle playoff win over New Orleans a couple of years ago?
But the great teams find a way to get it done. Transitions like these are part of the reason Fleck gives his team the same routine after each victory. Celebrate like crazy in the locker room Saturday, congratulate one another again on Sunday morning, then move on to critiquing your play and preparing for your next opponent.
“Our players have handled that very maturely, professionally, and that’s why I think we have … gotten better every week, because they handle that the right way and there’s not just this one win that’s bigger than the other,” Fleck said. “This is the biggest game of the year coming up against Iowa, period. It’s the biggest game we played in. We are 0-0 and this is a one-game championship against Iowa. And they have adopted that and they have believed that.”
Should the Gophers manage to deliver two of the program’s great recent victories in consecutive weeks, well, that should establish them in the eyes of everyone — including the College Football Playoff committee — that this team is, to use Fleck’s word, “elite.”