At 9-0, Gophers continue to reach new heights

Minnesota's next task is earning a victory at Iowa for the first time since 1999.

Head Coach PJ Fleck leads the team out of the tunnel at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 9. The Gophers defeated Penn State 31-26 to bring their record to 9-0. A first since 1904.

Kamaan Richards

Head Coach PJ Fleck leads the team out of the tunnel at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 9. The Gophers defeated Penn State 31-26 to bring their record to 9-0. A first since 1904.

Nick Jungheim

On Nov. 12, 1904, less than a week after Theodore Roosevelt was reelected for a second term as president of the United States, Minnesota defeated Wisconsin 28-0, improving to 9-0 on the season. Not until last Saturday, nearly 115 years later, did the Gophers replicate that feat.

In head coach P.J. Fleck’s third season, No. 7 Minnesota continues to defy the odds. Their 31-26 victory over then-No. 5 Penn State last weekend was the latest triumph in a season full of improbable and, in some cases, unprecedented success. For Fleck, the program’s history has no bearing on what it can achieve moving forward.

“I’m sure there were some people on the final drive who said, ‘Here we go again,'” Fleck said after the Penn State game. “We have to let go of all that … we have to change at some point. I think this team has proven that as we continue to move into the future we don’t have to keep saying things like that.”

This season, the Gophers owe much of their success to a high-powered offense, headlined by receivers Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman. Against Penn State, Bateman became just the second Gopher to ever record over 200 receiving yards in a game. His 203 yards receiving were a TCF Bank Stadium record. 

It’s not just the pass catchers who are performing at a high level. Minnesota also features a resurgent offensive line, an experienced stable of running backs and the reigning Big Ten offensive player of the week in quarterback Tanner Morgan. Against Penn State, Morgan’s 18-20 passing performance was instrumental to pulling off the victory. It was the second time he threw for a completion percentage of at least 90% in a game this year. The only other quarterback to accomplish that in NCAA history was Florida State’s Jameis Winston during his Heisman-winning 2013 campaign.

“It definitely stacks up there,” Morgan said when asked if Saturday was his most complete game of the season. “I think that we were really prepared. [Offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca] did a great job of getting us prepared and showing us what Penn State does.”

In the past 12 months, the Gophers’ list of accomplishments includes a plethora of feats the program has not achieved in generations. Dating back to last season, Minnesota has earned 11 consecutive victories, the second longest winning streak in the Big Ten behind Ohio State (15). With the victory against Penn State,the Gophers have won 11 straight games for the first time since winning 18 in a row between 1939 and 1942.

“That’s our goal … to just change the narrative,” said redshirt sophomore Antoine Winfield Jr. “I think we did that today.”

That 1939-1942 streak ended with a 7-6 loss against Iowa Pre-Flight, a naval-training academy based on the University of Iowa campus during World War II. While that opponent may be unfamiliar to today’s fans, their home field, Kinnick Stadium, is all too familiar and will serve as the site for Minnesota’s next game.

This weekend, the Gophers travel south to Iowa City, Iowa, a place where they have not won since 1999. The Hawkeyes have earned four consecutive victories in the series overall, a fact Minnesota knows well.

“We look at the different rivalries and the history,” said senior Winston DeLattiboudere. “Coach Fleck does a really good job of teaching us the history and significance of the rivalries. But we’re just excited to go out there and play together as a team, as a family.”

Over the years, Kinnick Stadium has proven to be a nightmare for teams with championship aspirations in November. The Hawkeyes used last-second field goals to upend No. 3 Penn State and No. 3 Michigan in 2008 and 2016 respectively. Both teams were undefeated before heading to Iowa City. Two years ago, a 5-3 Iowa team routed a 7-1 Ohio State squad 55-24. The Buckeyes were ranked No. 6 at the time.

If Minnesota can earn its first win in Iowa since the turn of the century, even more history awaits. One more victory would mark the first seven-win Big Ten season in Gophers history. It would also place the Gophers one victory away from clinching their first spot in the Big Ten Championship game in Indianapolis, where they would have a chance at their first conference title since 1967. While it is exciting for fans to think about what could be, players are only focused on the next step in the process.

“We’ve done a lot of things we haven’t done in a while,” said senior Carter Coughlin. “We’re going to keep that same mentality, and trust me when I say this week, we are going to practice harder than we’ve ever practiced. We’ve got our eyes fixed on the goal, which is going 1-0 in the Iowa season.”