UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The University of Minnesota Gophers football team considers itself to be a spiritual group.
As one of four tenants on which head coach P.J. Fleck’s program is built — academic, athletic, social and spiritual — this does not mean a prominent group at Minnesota’s biggest public university is collectively religious. The concept is about cultivating a belief in something bigger than yourself.
After Saturday’s 45-17 loss to now-No. 13 Penn State in the White Out game in Happy Valley, their faith is being tested. They might need a, say, coming-to-Jesus moment after a divine 4-0 September devolved into a, so far, 0-3 October. It might feel like hell.
After the announced crowd of 109,813 finally left them alone, Fleck attempted to look forward with his team inside the visitors’ locker room at Beaver Stadium late Saturday night. He pointed to their next five remaining regular-season games.
“We have raised expectations around here,” Fleck recalled to reporters. “I think that is why everybody has a really bad taste in their mouth. We expect to win every single game, period.”
Fleck looked backward as well. Pointing out they were ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 after throttling previously ranked Michigan State to close last month. But that feels like it was B.C.
When the Gophers lost to Purdue 20-10 on Oct. 1 and 25-14 to No. 17 Illinois on Oct. 15, they came up short in close games, with execution breakdowns coming in crucial moments.
Against Penn State, the thin margins became big gaps, especially defensively, with breakdown after breakdown leading to big play after big play. The Nittany Lions had six touchdowns over 16 yards.
“We are going to have to make a decision as a defense and as a team on what we are going to do going forward,” linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin said. “I know the guys in the room. There are some veterans on the team that have been through some hard times and there are some young guys that maybe this is the first adversity that they’ve faced. We’ve got to come together.”
When teams fall apart, it can begin with the defense blaming the offense for losses. Or vice versa. People start looking out for themselves.
“If you are sitting out there saying, ‘I’m going to improve so this defense can improve’ — no,” Sori-Marin said. “We’ve got to improve the guy next to us. We have to improve as a team, collectively coming together and just doing it for the guy next to you. That is really what it’s going to come down to.”
Defensive lineman Jalen Logan-Redding said belief in something bigger than yourself starts with awareness.
“Making sure that we hone in on each other’s energy,” Logan-Redding said. “Being with each other and understanding that we have been through a lot of things together. … We do things for each other, we do it for the people that we love. We sacrifice a lot for this game and for each other, so we can be the best we can be.”
After the Illinois loss, Fleck didn’t show the whole team its usual set of film clips to convey a certain perspective; it was the first time this season he passed on that routine. He didn’t feel players needed a “therapy session.”
With Fleck raising his hand for his self-described “crappy” way he prepared the team last week, he needed to find a new tactic.
If they find their way again, it’s not unlikely the Gophers could follow this three-game losing streak with a three-game winning streak. Minnesota hosts Rutgers (4-3, 1-3) on Saturday, with Minnesota opening as a 12-point favorite. Minnesota travels to Nebraska (3-4, 2-2) on Nov. 5 and welcomes Northwestern (1-6, 1-3) on Nov. 12.
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