Remember that Minnesota squad that needed a fourth-quarter fumble recovery to win its season opener over South Dakota State?
That Gophers group that required a miraculous 20-yard touchdown toss from Tanner Morgan to Chris Autman-Bell on 4th and 13 late in regulation and a where-did-he-come-from Antoine Winfield Jr. interception in overtime to top Fresno State?
The football program no one expected to do much of anything this season after a less-than-impressive start?
It’s now 9-0 — in the thick of the race not just to win the Big Ten West, but also garner a coveted spot in the College Football Playoff — and likely to crack the top 10 this week after knocking off No. 4 Penn State 31-26 on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium.
How’s that for changing your best?
“Change your best” is one of P.J. Fleck’s many signature phrases. They’re easy to mock, but they all mean something to this team. This one is relatively straightforward — be better today than you were yesterday, but not as good as you’ll be tomorrow.
That is this team’s story.
That’s been obvious for weeks. The Gophers looked like an entirely new squad coming out of the bye week after the nonconference slate as they blitzed Purdue and Illinois.
Then they embarrassed Nebraska in prime time and routed Rutgers and Maryland in consecutive weeks. If you couldn’t see how improved Minnesota was from the nonconference to then, you weren’t paying attention.
Still, some shrugged off the success as a product of a soft schedule. They needed to see it against a big-time team on a big-time stage. Beating Penn State in the fashion Minnesota did Saturday will surely wake people up.
The Gophers had the better quarterback, better skill position players and better line play. After an inconspicuous start, Minnesota’s defense tightened its screws. Had it not been for a Shannon Brooks fumble and some conservative play calling late, the Gophers very well could have boat raced Penn State, pun intended.
They were simply better than the Nittany Lions on Saturday, and plan to be a better version of themselves next week in Iowa City.
That should frighten Minnesota’s Big Ten counterparts. If this team continues to get better, exactly how good might it be come late November and early December, when championships are decided?
The upward trajectory isn’t anything new. Last season, after Fleck promoted Joe Rossi to defensive coordinator, the Gophers took off, winning three of their final four games, including dominant performances against Wisconsin and Georgia Tech.
This team, too, is hitting its stride at the right time — it just didn’t happen to take any losses while it found its way. Opposing defenses don’t seem to know whether it’s in their best interest to stop the Gophers’ running game or commit four defenders to cover Minnesota’s two elite receivers in Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman, who just rewrote a couple record books with his performance Saturday. Have you seen Tanner Morgan’s poise and precision? He’s now completed 90-plus percent of his passes in two Big Ten games this season.
The defense is turning in one good performance after another thanks to its strong line play and playmaking secondary. The linebacking core should get a boost next week when Kamal Martin returns to the fold.
This team, as is, is currently one of the best teams in college football. Can it really continue to improve from here? That’s the plan.
“We’re humble, we’re hungry,” Fleck said, “and we’ll just continue to change our best.”
If so, there may be no limits to what these Gophers can achieve, and no stage they can’t reach. The Gophers we saw play Saturday may be tough to top, but their best may still be yet to come.