MINNEAPOLIS - Later this week, the University of Minnesota football team opens its 2021 season with arguably the toughest game on it schedule.
The Gophers are hosting No. 4-ranked Ohio State Thursday night at Huntington Bank Stadium. Under the lights on national television, a game you can watch on Fox 9 if you’re not going, a sellout crowd is expected for the first time on campus since Nov. 30, 2019, a 38-17 loss to Wisconsin to end the regular season with ESPN’s College GameDay in town.
The two programs are in different spots as the 2021 season is about to start. The Gophers are coming off a 3-4 season in 2020 filled with adversity between injuries, COVID-19 issues and addressing social justice issues after the police killing of George Floyd just a few miles from campus.
The Buckeyes won another Big Ten title, are 15-0 in league play under Ryan Day and got to the College Football Playoff national title game.
In his fifth season as head coach, PJ Fleck says the 2021 squad is arguably the most connected he’s ever had as a coach. Fleck’s motto for 2021 is "TGIF," (Togetherness, Gratitude, Identity, Focus). That process started amid a global health pandemic, and Minneapolis being the center of riots and protests calling for change in the wake of Floyd’s death.
A recent team meeting where players spoke up about what the program means to them gave some insight into how close the 2021 team is. They’ll do everything "staying together," and now it’s a matter of seeing how that translates on the field.
"The way our team handled 2020 and everything that came their way in this city of all that happened, I think they gave themselves the best chance to be connected in 2021, and then they took 2021 and ran with it starting in January," Fleck said. "It’s a player-led team. Are we perfect? No. They just do it because they love each other."
Thursday marks Minnesota’s first season-opener against a top-five team since 2015, when the Gophers lost to TCO 23-17. That game was close going into the fourth quarter. The Gophers are currently two touchdown underdogs against the Buckeyes, despite having all but two starters back from last season.
Rush end Boye Mafe says opening against Ohio State is the type of you dream of as a kid playing football in the backyard.
"Everyone wants to play in the big games. The images that you’re producing in your head are these type of games. It’s one of those things that’s here now and you’ve got to prepare for it as if it’s just another game," Mafe said.
Playing big games is nothing new for the Gophers under Fleck. The 2019 season that ended with an 11-2 mark, the program’s best record since 1904, included wins over top-10 teams in Penn State and Auburn in the Outback Bowl. But it’s a new challenge to play a top-five team in the first game of the year.
Public interest in the Gophers was at an all-time high after beating the Tigers in January of 2020. Then eight weeks later, everything got shut down due to COVID-19.
"People got a chance to see what can happen here. We’re going to do everything we can to make sure every year we give ourselves the best chance to win," Fleck said.
After 18 months of adversity, the Gophers get the national stage Thursday night to show their depth, talent and togetherness. No one knows it more than quarterback Tanner Morgan, who watched his father battle a brain tumor for more than a year before his death earlier this summer. Morgan wants nothing more than to lead Minnesota to more history Thursday night.
"It’s a one game championship season and it just so happens to be starting out with one of the best teams in the country," quarterback Tanner Morgan said. "We don’t really focus on external noise, we focus on each other and being at our best to help our team give us the best chance to be successful come Thursday night."
On paper, the Gophers can give Ohio State a game. The entire offensive line is back and they have arguably the best running back in the Big Ten in Mo Ibrahim. There are questions at receiver, including the health of Chris Autman-Bell.
On defense, Fleck added transfers Nyles Pinckney and Jack Gibbens. The defensive line is as deep as it’s ever been under Fleck, Braelin Oliver is back at linebacker from a knee injury and there’s experience in the secondary between Coney Durr, Jordan Howden and Tyler Nubin. Terrell Smith stood out in fall camp at defensive back.
On paper, it’s a team that has a better chance to look like the 2019 squad that went 11-2 instead of last year’s 3-4. That road starts Thursday, and there’s not a better gauge than a top-five opponent.
"We know what we’re getting ourselves into. Those guys will be prepared, so it just gives us a little boost knowing we have to be on our ‘A’ game Thursday night," Ibrahim said.
"Being able to play one of the best teams in the country right off the bat with a team that truly does love each other, is excited to play somebody else, the feeling in the locker room is really excited. It’s an elite opportunity," Morgan said.