MINNEAPOLIS - PJ Fleck hears the conversations happening outside the four walls of the University of Minnesota football program.
That said, he does everything he can to keep those walls from letting the outside noise in. The Gophers are 5-0 for the first time since 2004. That squad, coached by Glen Mason 15 years ago, lost its last three Big Ten games to finish 3-5 in league play. They then beat Alabama in the Music City Bowl in Nashville.
Minnesota (5-0, 2-0) is unbeaten in Big Ten play through two weeks after beating Illinois 40-17 last Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium. Fleck joked with his defense earlier this week that have gave them a shutout. The Illini scored two defensive touchdowns, and Fleck burned a timeout before the Illinois kicker missed a field goal. The kicker then came back and drilled it.
The Gophers host Nebraska Saturday night and enter the contest as 7.5-point favorites. They’re ranked for the first time all season, at No. 25, in the Coaches Poll. They’re the top team in the “Others receiving votes” category in the Associated Press Top 25.
It’s the last thing Fleck wants to talk about, but the path is there for the Gophers to be 8-0 when Penn State comes to Minneapolis on Nov. 9. What stands in their way is Nebraska on Saturday, a road trip to Rutgers, which just fired its head coach, in two weeks and a home game against Maryland on Oct. 26.
Casual fans are starting to talk about Gopher football again. Fleck says that’s great, but the focus remains on Nebraska.
“This is a one game championship season against Nebraska. All of our attention is going into Nebraska, that’s the only thing we’re focused on. Our players truly do that, our four walls are the only thing that matters,” Fleck said. “What I’m excited about is our state, our community, the Twin City area are all talking about Gopher football. That’s what I love, and I want them to keep talking about Gopher football. Talk all you want, say what you want, whatever it is. But our players are talking about us, of what we have to do to get better and that’s how we’re going to handle that.”
His players are saying as much, too.
“That’s an area this team has grown a lot, is we really do focus on the fact that this week, it’s 0-0. We’ve got to go out and beat Nebraska,” senior rush end Carter Coughlin said. “We’re only focused on Nebraska and the fact that we’re 0-0 against them this season.”
The Gophers are well into preparations for the Cornhuskers (4-2, 2-1). They’re trying to game plan on if quarterback Adrian Martinez and wide receiver J.D. Spielman will play. Both suffered knee injuries in last week’s last-second win over Northwestern.
They’re preparing for Nebraska’s big and physical defensive front seven, which limited the Wildcats to 10 points on Saturday. But their biggest preparations are for something that won’t have a helmet, pads or cleats: Mother Nature.
Temperatures were in the mid-80s earlier this week. It will struggle to get to 40 degrees by the 6:30 p.m. kickoff time Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium. Snow, albeit flurries, is also in the forecast, as are strong winds. Welcome to summer, fall and winter in Minnesota in the span of seven days.
“We have some other things we’re doing to make sure we’re doing everything we can to create that environment, because you walk outside today and it’s maybe one of the nicest days the state of Minnesota has had in the three years I’ve been here,” Fleck said Tuesday.
Those things included getting the team’s indoor practice facility as cold as it can, which is in the low 50s. Fleck has his players put their hands in ice buckets at certain times in practice. They have frozen footballs, they have wet footballs.
Coughlin had a defensive coach pour water and ice down his back at the start of practice earlier this week to simulate the cold weather. It didn’t faze the senior out of Eden Prairie.
“We love the cold, no doubt. That’s our mentality. If you come up to Minneapolis and it’s our weather, you better be ready to play in it because we’re going to be,” Coughlin said.
Tanner Morgan, currently one of the top quarterbacks in the Big Ten with 13 touchdowns and just three interceptions, embraces the adversity at practice every day. He says it makes game day easier.
“If you can make it as hard as possible on yourself in practice, then let’s do it. It’s only going to make the game that much easier,” Morgan said.
Morgan has taken over an offense that’s become one of the more dynamic units in the country. They went off for 487 total yards, 332 on the ground, in last week’s win over Illinois. They’re going to lead on seniors Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, who combined for 322 yards and two touchdowns last week.
They’re mostly healthy, and their biggest focus is to be 1-0 late Saturday night.
“Right now we’re 0-0, everybody on the outside looks at what we are. We are 0-0, and our players want to be 1-0, that’s it,” Fleck said.