The door to the Big Ten West Division title opened on Saturday.
Previous frontrunner Iowa, second in the nation, went down unbeaten 24-7 on Saturday in an upset to Purdue, having previously dropped the Hawks unbeaten 3-1 in conference play. And the Gophers’ 30-23 win over Nebraska put the Yu in second 2-1, only a game-and-a-half out of top spot.
During Azar, it is a wildly speculated whether head coach PJ Fleck’s team can successfully step through the transom. Minnesota’s performance during the first half of the season has been shaky, and any set of data including a loss to Bowling Green as the 31-point favorite should undermine confidence and expectations.
“With all due respect to Bowling Green, I was probably the worst coach in five years,” Fleck said Saturday of that September 25 non-conference loss. “I had to look at myself in the mirror and say, ‘You were terrible, terrible. How am I going to get better? And how do I make sure everyone else is better?’ ”
After losing to the worst team in the Mid-American Conference, Minnesota was a two-point underdog to Purdue and won 20–13. He was a four-point underdog for Nebraska before winning that game.
Yet like the one-possession victory over Miami (Ohio), Minnesota was significantly different in the first half than the second half against Nebraska. His run-pass balance on offense dried up in the second half, but his defense did enough.
While the Gophers won the turnover margin against Purdue (plus-2), and they had more explosive plays of 25-yards or more (3-2) against Nebraska, they lost the turnover margin (minus-2) and less Explosive play (6-3). Those two categories with missed tackles are considered important by Fleck and deemed to win 78 percent of the game.
“We lived in a 22-cent world and got away with it,” Fleck said on Saturday. “It shows we can do this. We don’t want to be there all the time.”
Morgan, who threw down both interceptions to give Nebraska a lifeline in the game, said, “We keep coming out of the gates … and speeding up. Then, it starts with me that I am taking care of the ball and getting opportunities for people to play.”
After losing to Bowling Green, Fleck spoke of the team’s “disproportionate spectrum”. This statement against Nebraska continued halfway through.
“We’re constantly evolving,” Fleck said. “.. we are constantly changing. This team, in particular, is more than any team I have, it seems that every week, there are more and more challenges and we have to change a lot more than before. But it is called upon to do so.”
The Gophers have lost their top two running backs and their top receiver, Chris Autman-Bell, has been out or limited in half of their games. On Saturday with Autman-Bell he was the healthiest of the entire season, with Morgan saying things “felt really comfortable” as he completed a school-record 16 straight passes before his interception.
If the Gophers are able to continue their winning path, margins could remain slim, with Maryland at home on Saturday, followed by Northwestern and Illinois.
Fleck explained how they are 3-1 in games decided by one point or less. “We know what’s going on the way we’re made now, we may have a much narrower game,” Fleck said. “We have to find a way to win narrow games. When we had 11 wins in 2019, we were (6-1) in one-possession games. … That’s how you get into those seasons.”
If the dream can be realized, Fleck mentioned a predecessor: Northwestern in 2018. He went 5–2 in the Big Ten Underdog one-capture games to reach the Big Ten Championship Game.