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Gophers’ finale highlights 2020 oddity more than closure

Minnesota has been faced with several challenges it never saw before during this shortened football season.
Image by Tony Saunders
Thomas Barber and Coney Durr tackle Purdue on Saturday, Nov. 10 at TCF Bank Stadium. The Gophers beat the Boilermakers 41-10.

From the outside looking in, Minnesota’s game this Saturday at Nebraska seems similar to a bowl game.

Playing in mid-December, preparing for multiple weeks, trying to win the final game and solidify a winning percentage around .500; that is what the college football bowl season typically looks like. And this matchup could mark the end of what has been an odd season for the Gophers.

Coaches and players at Minnesota are also using the same cliche vernacular used around the country when bowl season begins, saying the game against the Cornhuskers provides the Gophers with another opportunity to grow as individuals and a team.

“It’s about how we take it each week. Each week is a championship season, this week is a championship season,” quarterback Tanner Morgan said. “It’s about growing and having fun together and doing everything to be successful on Saturday.”

But besides these stretched similarities, this week’s matchup is quite different than what a bowl game would look like in a normal season. Other than the obvious fact that this is a Big Ten West matchup, the Gophers have not been together on the field for training and practices. Minnesota paused team activities two weeks ago due to a COVID-19 outbreak in the program and has not played a game since Nov. 20.

A bowl game is typically the 13th game of the season for many programs and is seen as a game that provides a sense of closure. But in this case, Saturday’s matchup will be only the sixth one for the Gophers this season, making it feel like the season is just getting started when, in actuality, it’s ending.

When asked about the potential of playing Wisconsin next week to make up for one of the canceled games, head coach P.J. Fleck said he and the Gophers would love to play the Badgers, but he has not heard if that is possible. If the Big Ten decides against playing that game, Saturday will mark the end of what has been an odd 2020 season with many different ups and downs compared to what teams traditionally experience.

The challenges began with Rashod Bateman opting out of the season to focus on the NFL draft. While Fleck and the Gophers voiced their support of Bateman, losing a player of his caliber would be challenging for any team. Once the Big Ten announced a shortened schedule with extensive protocols in place, the challenge became Bateman opting back in and trying to regain NCAA eligibility.

Then, the challenges came on the field. Several players were immediately unavailable to play due to opting out or injury. In its first two games, Minnesota’s defense was clearly in need of work, as it allowed more rush yards per attempt than any team in the Big Ten. Kicking and punting were also significant issues for the Gophers that did not give a successful offense any favors.

Following that up, defensive coordinator Joe Rossi tested positive for COVID-19 and was unavailable to coach in the Gophers’ best defensive performance against a struggling Illinois team. Iowa extended its winning streak against Minnesota to six years after a 35-7 thrashing of the Gophers and a narrow victory over Purdue ended with a controversial offensive pass interference call that went Minnesota’s way.

Fleck also has discussed throughout the season logistical issues behind the scenes that he has not faced as a football coach in a non-pandemic season.

Added together with the result against Nebraska coming Saturday, it may seem difficult to evaluate this season for the Gophers. In short, they will have played only half the typical number of games with different types of practices, while adhering to regular COVID-19 testing and protocols, and two weeks away from the facilities in the middle of the season.

But, Fleck knows how valuable this season has been to his team.

“What you do now, it matters, and you should care about it because here’s how it’s going to affect this. Not just tomorrow, not only Saturday against Nebraska or the last week or even next year,” Fleck said. “Whatever you’re doing now, you’re creating the habits and instincts you’re going to have when you’re a father, a husband and a responsible professional. It goes beyond football.”

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