With Big Ten West lead, Gophers prep for Illinois championship season

Minnesota Golden Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan (2) (at top) celebrates his touchdown run with teammates in the 4th quarter during a college football game between the Minnesota Golden Gophers and the Northwestern Wildcats on October 30, 2021, at R ((Photo by Daniel Bartel/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images))

It’s championship week for the University of Minnesota football team.

Literally, no. But inside the four walls of the football complex on campus, it’s Illinois Championship Week. Coach PJ Fleck is often chided and mocked from the outside for his mantras and championship seasons, but it’s an approach he’s used since the first day he became a head coach.

It worked in 2019, when the Gophers went 11-2 and had their best season since 1904. Now, the Gophers host Illinois on Saturday looking for their fifth straight Big Ten win. They find themselves in unfamiliar territory: Leading the Big Ten West with four games to play.

"You understand big picture where you’re at, but you’ve got to take it one week at a time. We know that when we’re not at our best, anybody can beat us. We’ve experienced that this season," quarterback Tanner Morgan said. "If we don’t take care of what we need to do this week and give ourselves the best chance to be successful on Saturdays, then that doesn’t matter."

Five weeks ago, the Gophers had an inexplicable 14-10 loss on Homecoming to Bowling Green. It had fans questioning Fleck and the program, and it could’ve derailed the season. Instead, it’s become a major learning experience for everyone involved with program.

Since what Fleck has labeled his worst head coaching performance in nine seasons, Minnesota has won four straight in the Big Ten. The Gophers are 4-1 in the West Division, and the remaining games are Illinois, at Iowa, at Indiana and closing out the regular season against Wisconsin. The Hawkeyes and Badgers each have two Big Ten losses.

With a one game lead, the Gophers control their destiny for a division title with four games to play.

"I always remember the saying, ‘they remember November.’ Especially in the situation we’re in, having control in the West. But we just have to do our jobs and play one championship game each week. We’re just worried about this game this week," defensive tackle Nyles Pinckney said. "November, we’re not going to make it bigger than it is or smaller than it is, we’ve just got to keep doing what we’ve been doing."

The real possibility exists that the Battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe, like it did in 2019, could determine the Wests’ representative in the Big Ten title game. The Badgers’ remaining schedule is at Rutgers, against Northwestern and against Nebraska before coming to Minneapolis. 


The Gophers had plenty to celebrate after beating Northwestern 41-14 on Saturday, especially Morgan and Derik LeCaptain. Fans have been pleading for Morgan to keep the ball on the run-pass option, and he finally did on the first play of the fourth quarter. He faked out the entire Wildcats’ defense for an 18-yard touchdown, joking that it’s the most green grass he’s ever seen in a game. It gave Minnesota a 27-7 lead.

"Just blazing speed, you know? I think that’s what it was all about. When things are there, you’ve got to take them. Definitely maybe a 4.2 40 if I was running that one," Morgan joked.

The team had even more fun with LeCaptain, who broke four tackles on the way to his first career touchdown from 24 yards out to seal the win. LeCaptain, a reserve linebacker and special teams ace, became an emergency running back after injuries to Mo Ibrahim, Trey Potts and Bryce Williams.

The sideline erupted after LeCaptain’s touchdown.

"Everybody on the sideline was going crazy. Derik LeCaptain one of the best guys you’ll ever meet, he deserves everything he gets," linebacker Jack Gibbens said.


All the preseason talk about the Gophers’ receiving corps was around Chris Autman-Bell, Dylan Wright and Daniel Jackson. All three of them have missed games this season for either injuries or personal reasons.

That left an opening for Mike Brown-Stephens, and he’s taken advantage. He scored his first career touchdown last year at Wisconsin. This season, he’s got 12 catches for 295 yards and scored a touchdown against Nebraska. With Autman-Bell blanketed at Northwestern, Brown-Stephens made four catches for 63 yards. 

"When Mike gets opportunities, he makes the most of it. He’s awesome, I love throwing the ball to 22," Morgan said.

Brown-Stephens isn’t afraid of the spotlight. After all, his uncle is John Legend. The music star got to see him play two years ago at Fresno State, and addressed the team after an overtime win. Legend is a football fan, albeit an Ohio State fan.

"He’s always been a fan of the sport, he just wasn’t athletic enough to play. I guess his voice made up for that," Brown-Stephens joked.

Four regular season games remain, four "championship seasons." The reality for the Gophers is they control their own destiny to call themselves Big Ten West champions in early December.