MINNEAPOLIS - PJ Fleck has been consistent with many things in his five-plus seasons as the University of Minnesota football coach, but one message might be above all others: Block out the external noise, the internal message has to be way louder.
That message will be put to the test as much this week as it was in 2019, when the Gophers were 8-0 before hosting Penn State in a mostly maroon-laden crowd at then TCF Bank Stadium. The program’s four walls closed in, and they beat the Nittany Lions 31-26 to put themselves in the top-10 in the country.
The Gophers heard all the noise last week as they headed to East Lansing to open Big Ten play at Michigan State. Sure, they were 3-0, but they hadn’t played anybody. The three teams they beat by a combined 149-17 – New Mexico State, Western Illinois and Colorado – haven’t won a game yet this season. Life is different on the road in the Big Ten, and two weeks ago, the Spartans were a top-15 program.
Minnesota’s response? A 34-7 win that was dominant from the opening kick. Their reward? Entering the national polls for the first time in nearly two years. The Gophers are No. 21 in the Associated Press Top 25, and No. 23 in the USA Today Coaches Poll. Many are saying they should be higher, but how much do rankings really matter four weeks in?
"I think any time that happens, that’s good for the brand of the University of the Minnesota, period. We are not the most important thing on this campus, at the University, or even in this town, I’ve made that very clear. But we can be a front porch to all the things we talked about - to get more and more students to be attracted to the University of Minnesota," Fleck said Monday. "We’re talking about a game that allows you to be able to have that type of exposure, especially when you get nationally recognized. Now that doesn’t mean anything necessarily inside our program. We have a lot of guys who have had that happen before. They’ve been there. They understand how the external message will get louder, but the internal message has to be the loudest, period. They are going to hear it, it’s just about the difference between hearing and listening. We have a job to do."
There will be plenty of buzz around Dinkytown this week, as there should be. The Gophers are 4-0, have out-scored their opponents by a combined 183-24 and Purdue is coming to town, potentially without its starting quarterback.
It's Homecoming, and the Gophers should be playing in front of a sellout crowd Saturday at Huntington Bank Stadium. Amid that buzz and hoopla, their job is to win a football game.
"I always give my homecoming quote. We’re not in charge of the punch, we are not in charge of the streamers, we’re not in charge of matching the dress with the suit of our date. We are not in charge of any of that. We are in charge of taking care of a football game and playing our best football to be 1-0," Fleck said. "They know how to handle that, but again, good for all of those outside reasons that we talked about. Our job is to find a way to play our best in a one-game championship season."
Last year’s Homecoming wasn’t so happy. Fleck and the Gophers lost to Bowling Green as 31-point favorites, 14-10. This year feels like a different team, with the No. 3-ranked offense and the No. 1 total defense in the country.
If being 4-0, ranked and it being Homecoming isn’t enough, the Gophers are holding a "Stripe Out" Saturday at Huntington Bank Stadium against the Boilermakers. Fans going to the game should check their tickets, then the Gophers’ web site. Each section is being asked to wear maroon or gold.
The idea? Fill the stadium with all maroon in one section, gold the next over and so on. Special things can happen when a fan base buys into a football team, like when the Gophers beat Penn State in a "maroon out."
"We have incredible fans and I hope that everybody knows what section they are on and what to wear," Fleck said. "Fan bases are what create energy in college football. That is what makes the NFL so special is the fan bases. That is what makes this so fun. That is what it’s all about. Hope everybody has a great time with it and really buys into it and has a great time with it."