'You've earned the right for a big game': Fleck prepping No. 13 Gophers for No. 5 Penn State

The Gophers certainly don’t need any extra motivation this week, with No. 5-ranked Penn State coming in for the biggest home game in the history of TCF Bank Stadium. But the chip on their shoulder might have gotten a little sharper after the release of the College Football Playoff rankings came out Tuesday night.

It’s the first measuring stick for what the national semifinals could look like after 12 regular season games.

Minnesota came in at No. 17 in the country. Its Saturday opponent, Penn State, entered the rankings at No. 4. The Gophers, Nittany Lions and Ohio State are the last three undefeated teams left in the Big Ten. The poll leans a lot on strength of schedule, quality wins and losses. It’s not buying into PJ Fleck just yet. Ranked ahead of the Gophers are No. 15 Michigan and No. 14 Wisconsin, despite the Wolverines and Badgers each having two losses.

That said, they're in the College Football Playoff rankings for the first time in school history.

The reality is they’re the first rankings, and they don’t matter. What matters to Fleck is Minnesota improving to 9-0, and winning the Penn State championship season. It’s the biggest Gophers home game since they faced Michigan in 2003 at the Metrodome, and they’ve earned the hype. They'll play in front of a sellout crowd at TCF Bank for the first time since 2015.

“You’ve earned the right for a big game, no matter who it was against. You earned a right for the big game because of what you’ve done. The only way you’re going to continue to have that is if you keep having success in these big games, the big moments. The pressure they have on themselves is earned. I think that’s really special,” Fleck said.

Fleck talked with reporters Tuesday after signing a 7-year extension, worth $4.6 million annually plus incentives, to keep him in Minnesota through the 2026 season. It’s big news for the program just days ahead of its biggest game in 16 years.

We know the historical significance by now. It’s Minnesota’s best start since 1941, since World War II. It’s their best Big Ten start since 1961, 58 years. There’s a vibe around the University of Minnesota campus that hasn’t existed for years, and TCF Bank Stadium is nearing a sellout.

That’s a lot of outside noise for the four walls of the Minnesota program, which keep players locked in on the task at hand.

“Obviously it’s really exciting for the campus and for the state of Minnesota to be excited about Gopher football. At the end of the day, it’s the most important game because it’s the next one,” quarterback Tanner Morgan said.

Morgan and the Gophers’ offense will get its biggest test yet. He engineered two game-winning drives early in the non-conference, and drove Minnesota down the field at Fresno State to force overtime.

In five Big Ten games, the Gophers are out-scoring opponents by a combined 206-72. The Nittany Lions come to Minneapolis ranked ninth in the nation in total defense, allowing 280 yards per game. They rank second in scoring defense, allowing 9.6 points per game. They’re second in the nation in rushing defense, allowing just 68.4 yards per game.

Running the football against Penn State will be the biggest challenge for the Gophers, who ranked No. 31 nationally with 204.5 rushing yards per game, led mostly by Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks. The Nittany Lions also have 30 quarterback sacks, and 67 tackles for a loss this season.

For Minnesota’s defense, it’s about containing receiver KJ Hamler and quarterback Sean Clifford. Hamler has three 100-yard games this season, and eight receiving touchdowns. Clifford is passing for more than 250 yards per game, and has 20 passing touchdowns with just three interceptions. He’s also a threat to run, with 280 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns through eight games.

Gophers’ linebacker Thomas Barber says the team will scheme and prepare for everything Penn State will throw at them. They’ll also stay in the moment.

“Every next game is important, so this game is our Big Ten championship game because it’s the next right game, next right step to being 1-0,” Barber said. “Obviously when you come here, you want to be in big games. Each game leading up to this game has helped us achieve that.”

After Penn State, the Gophers travel to Iowa and Northwestern before finishing the regular season against Wisconsin. Minnesota has a two-game lead over the Hawkeyes and Badgers in the Big Ten West, and there’s a real chance that the Gophers could clinch the division before Wisconsin comes to Minneapolis.

The Gophers have earned the right to be 8-0, ranked No. 13 in the polls, No. 17 in the College Football Playoff and most importantly, to be playing relevant football in November.

“Any win that you have at this point, no matter who it’s against, it’s significant. You’re talking about playing your final four games, and we know we’re playing ranked teams as we continue to go. If we don’t win game one, this doesn’t matter. If we don’t win game four, this doesn’t matter. If we don’t win game seven, this doesn’t matter,” Fleck said. “I tell our players internally they have to think they’re ranked No. 1 with everything that we do. We want to be the best, we want to do everything at an elite level, a championship level.”

A win Saturday, and discussions start about planning trips for Pasadena.