MINNEAPOLIS - Don’t tell University of Minnesota football coach PJ Fleck his team has a soft non-conference schedule.
He’ll be more than happy to point out every facet of playing South Dakota State, Fresno State and Georgia Southern that will have the Gophers ready for Big Ten play. The Eagles of Georgia Southern will be the final non-conference test for the Gophers before their bye week, followed by the Big Ten opener Sept. 28 at Purdue.
The Gophers needed a late game-tying touchdown on a 4th-and-13 play from Tanner Morgan to Chris Autman-Bell, a go-ahead field goal from Michael Lantz in double overtime and Antoine Winfield Jr.’s interception to seal a 38-35 win at Fresno State.
So what does Fleck say about the three teams being “state” or “directional” schools? He’ll point out that their combined record last year was 32-8, that they all won their conference titles and that Georgia Southern is coming off a 26-18 win over Maine, then ranked No. 5 in FCS.
The Gophers (2-0) enter Saturday afternoon’s game as 16.5 point favorites. They were 12.5-point favorites against the Jackrabbits before trailing in the fourth quarter and needing a late touchdown to win, 28-21.
“We’re playing really good football teams. These are really good football teams who know how to win games, who circle us on the schedule as ‘The Game.’” Fleck said. “They’re all really good, they’re all champions, they all know how to win.”
The Gophers feature 12 players on their roster from the state of Georgia. One of them is star receiver Rashod Bateman, who very early on in his recruiting process was committed to Georgia Southern.
He’s emerged as a go-to target on offense for the Gophers as defenses do whatever they can to stop senior Tyler Johnson. Bateman had five catches for 132 yards, including a 42-yard 1-handed touchdown catch, against the Jackrabbits. He followed that with seven catches for 105 yards and a score at Fresno State.
The Eagles went 10-3 last season, and will give the Gophers’ defense a test. They run the triple option, which Fleck and Minnesota faced against Georgia Tech in the Quick Lane Bowl.
It’s not the same style as Georgia Southern’s, but it remains option football.
“This week everybody has to do their job 10 times better than they did it last week because it is gap sound, it is option football and if you don’t do your job, it isn’t a 10-yard gain, the guy is hitting his head on the goal post. It’s a touchdown,” Fleck said.
Georgie Tech led the nation in rushing last year out of its triple option. The Gophers held them to a season-low 206 rushing yards. In two games so far this season, Georgia Southern is averaging 234.5 rushing yards per game.
Last week, they ran for 395 yards in a win over Maine.
“They’re a very good football team, very well-coached, they’ve got athletes everywhere and they’ve won the Sun Belt in the last few years,” Fleck said. “When you’re playing the triple option, you’ve got to be ready for anything.”
Most importantly, the Gophers need to take care of their business before getting a week off heading into the Big Ten opener at Purdue.