Fleck on South Dakota State: 'We need to worry about us'

PJ Fleck isn’t listening to the odds-makers in Las Vegas, who have the Gophers favored by 12.5 points against South Dakota State Thursday night at TCF Bank Stadium.

The Jackrabbits finished 10-3 last season, and enter 2019 ranked No. 3 in FCS, previously known as Division I-AA.

“They’re a really good football team. There’s no way around that, and it doesn’t matter. You could put three letters in front of their division, that’s hog wash, who cares? Does not matter, FBS, FCS, Division I, Division II,” Fleck said Sunday. I know that matters to a lot of people, but when you play on game day and you game plan people, that goes out the door in coach’s rooms. They are picked No. 3 in the country, some have them picked to win a national title.”

With that said, Fleck added that preparing for South Dakota State is like “scheming for ghosts.” They don’t know exactly what they will see until kickoff.

They’ve got a new offensive coordinator, and J’Bore Gibbs redshirted last season. He’ll throw his first collegiate pass at some point Thursday night. It’s why the theme for the Gophers this week will be largely about focusing on themselves, and worrying about their own play.

Defensive coordinator Joe Rossi admitted Monday he doesn’t like first games, and the challenge that a lack of familiarity with the opponent presents. Rossi was named the permanent defensive coordinator last season, replacing Robb Smith, after the Gophers got their first win at Wisconsin since 1994. It was also their first time winning Paul Bunyan’s Axe in 14 years.

Under Rossi, the Gophers allowed a little more than 14 points per game over the last four games of the season.

“You’ve got a new coordinator and you got a new quarterback, so those always give you a little bit of an uneasy feeling,” Rossi said. “So what do you have to do? You have to focus more on yourself than you do the opponent.”

That’s Minnesota’s sole focus this week: Doing what it does better than what the opponent considers its strengths.

For seniors Thomas Barber and Tyler Johnson, it’s their last Thursday night under the lights at TCF Bank Stadium. There’s plenty of anticipation and build-up for the season-opener, especially after the way the Gophers finished last season.

None of it matters at kickoff Thursday night, but it won’t stop them from soaking it all in.

‘It’s always amazing. We’re just telling the freshman, just get ready. Enjoy your moment, but then it’s time to lock it in,” Barber said.

Johnson is back for one more season after deciding to wait on the NFL for one more year. He was an All-Big Ten selection last year, but he’s actually more excited for one of his fellow seniors. Johnson’s face lit up with a smile when asked about senior running back Rodney Smith, who is back after suffering a season-ending knee injury against Fresno State last year.

Smith is currently seventh in Gopher history with more than 2,900 rushing yards and has 21 career rushing touchdowns. Fleck said Sunday he’ll split starting running back duties with Mo Ibrahim, and Shannon Brooks is close to returning.

“Can’t wait, can’t wait to see Rod back out there. I’m very excited for Rodney. Great to see him back healthy, we just can’t wait to see his first rush. He’s excited to get hit again,” Johnson said.

He’s just one of several weapons at the disposal of redshirt sophomore quarterback Tanner Morgan, who will be the starting quarterback Thursday night after Zack Annexstad suffered a foot injury early in fall camp. Annexstad is out indefinitely.

Morgan went 3-1 as a starter to end last season, including wins over Purdue, Wisconsin and Georgia Tech. He also had 302 yards passing and three touchdowns in his first start last season, a win over Indiana.

The bottom line is Fleck knows South Dakota State will give the Gophers their best shot. They’re preseason top five in the nation in FCS, and many consider them title contenders.

His greatest concern is making sure his players are at their best when kickoff comes Thursday night.

“What matters is how well we play our game. We have to be better at what we do than their good at what they do,” Fleck said.