‘Cardiac Gophers’ head into Big Ten play 3-0

Minnesota has needed a trio of fourth-quarter comebacks to open the season undefeated.

Running+back+Rodney+Smith+carries+the+ball+at+TCF+Bank+Stadium+on+Thursday%2C+Aug.+29.+Minnesota+defeated+South+Dakota+State+28-21.

Kamaan Richards

Running back Rodney Smith carries the ball at TCF Bank Stadium on Thursday, Aug. 29. Minnesota defeated South Dakota State 28-21.

Nick Jungheim

Although they entered the contest as favorites and jumped out to a double-digit lead, the Gophers needed a fourth-quarter rally to salvage a victory. 

Sound familiar? That statement has applied to all three games Minnesota has played so far this season.

For the fourth consecutive season, the Gophers swept their nonconference opponents to open the season 3-0. This year, however, the victories were hard-fought as Minnesota needed creativity, resiliency and a bit of luck to defeat South Dakota State, Fresno State and Georgia Southern by a combined 13 points.

“There’s something to be said for how we’re winning,” head coach P.J. Fleck said after the Georgia Southern game. “There’s going to be a lot of close games in the Big Ten; just statistically speaking, there always is. This team has found ways to win really difficult games.”

Fleck pointed out that even though none of Minnesota’s first three opponents were members of Power Five conferences, they are established programs with traditions of winning. In 2018, they produced a combined record of 32-8, with South Dakota State advancing to the semifinals of the FCS Playoffs and Fresno State attaining a final ranking of No. 18 in the Associated Press poll.

If there is one thing the Gophers have demonstrated this season, it’s an ability to make key plays at critical moments. In the season opener, redshirt senior Winston DeLattiboudere recovered a fumble at the South Dakota State 34-yard line with 8:12 remaining which led to the go-ahead touchdown from redshirt sophomore Mohamed Ibrahim five plays later.

The next week at Fresno State, Minnesota needed a last-minute, 20-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Tanner Morgan to receiver Chris Autman-Bell on a fourth-and-13 to tie the game. In the second overtime period, redshirt sophomore Antoine Winfield Jr. sealed a 38-35 Gophers victory with a walk-off interception.

Just when it appeared that the Gophers were out of dramatic ways to win games, Morgan led the offense 13 plays and 75 yards in just 3:34, capping the furious drive with a touchdown to receiver Tyler Johnson with 13 seconds remaining against Georgia Southern. The senior’s third trip to the end zone that afternoon was decisive as Minnesota wrestled a 35-32 victory away from the Eagles.

“We’re doing a lot of things to put ourselves in a situation where we have to come back and do the two-minute drive,” Morgan said. “But finding a way to win and through our culture, through our ‘row the boat’ mantra, we’re able to do that.”

While winning close games is important, so is avoiding them when given the opportunity, something Minnesota has struggled with so far this year. In the first three weeks of the season, the Gophers surrendered leads of 20-7, 14-3 and 21-10.

“We had three very big, emotional games,” Fleck said after the Georgia Southern game. “It could have been a loss, but they found a way to win. But the winning is one thing, how we play is what I care about. I didn’t think we played up to our capabilities.”

Despite the upset scares, Minnesota has managed to remain undefeated so far, something many of its upcoming opponents cannot say. Four of the Gophers’ first five Big Ten matchups are against Purdue, Nebraska, Illinois and Maryland, all teams who have already lost games in which they were favored. 

After the week off, Minnesota will look to achieve its first 4-0 start since 2013.  To accomplish that, the Gophers will have to defeat Purdue on Sept. 28 in West Lafayette, Indiana. 

“Coach Fleck said we’re good enough for right now,” senior Carter Coughlin said. “We’re 3-0 and that’s exactly where we wanted to be, but we have a lot of different areas we need to improve on. So, I’m excited to have a whole two weeks for us to get a lot better and come out flying against Purdue.”