Gophers

Undefeated Minnesota is in the drivers seat to win the Big Ten West. A 34-7 victory against the Huskers last month is a big reason why.

LINCOLN — A visit to the website of Minnesota football Tuesday morning revealed something interesting: Tickets were still on sale for the No. 13 Gophers’ big tilt with No. 5 Penn State. In 44 different sections, actually.

Such is life for a school in a pro sports market. It’s the first Minnesota home game between top-15 teams since 1961. It’s the biggest game involving the Gophers since at least 2003, when they lost a 38-35 thriller to Michigan in the Metrodome. And this is Minnesota’s best team since that 2003 squad, the only Gophers team since 1905 to win 10 games in a season.

“Gophers are in the hunt for the Big Ten West title race,” Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck said on his local radio show Sunday. “This is what we said could happen at this point. And here we are.”

In Year 3. Pretty good, Fleck. By Tuesday he’d earned a new seven-year contract worth $4.6 million annually, with a pay bump for his staff, too. Fleck’s new salary is $1 million more than his previous one.

“Minnesota has everything,” Fleck said Tuesday. “I feel like we can get to where we say we want to be.”

UM leads the West by two games, but the race is far from decided. The Gophers’ old, familiar rivals — who have more seasoning in winning these games — still loom on the schedule. Iowa and Wisconsin also play each other Saturday in a kind of West division elimination contest.

Nebraska (4-5, 2-4 Big Ten) is a bit player in this drama. It could win every remaining game and still do no better than tie Minnesota, which would have to lose out. The Gophers hold the tiebreaker by virtue of a 34-7 blowout win.

So the Huskers — divisional co-favorites back in the summer — are potential spoilers for the fourth time in five years. The role Minnesota is accustomed to. So it goes.

It’s worth charting how three Upper Midwest rivals — Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin — surged ahead in the West while Nebraska stumbled behind. To the tape:

» The trio won all of their nonconference games. All four teams played a road game in nonleague play, but only NU (a 34-31 loss at Colorado) and Iowa (18-17 win at Iowa State) risked a Power Five foe. Don’t underestimate the magnitude of the CU loss on the Huskers’ season. The emotions coach Scott Frost and players had afterward were notable and distinct after the team lost a 17-0 halftime lead.

“I’ve only been a part of a few as tough as that one,” Frost said. “I’m heartbroken for the kids because they worked their butts off this week.”

Said quarterback Adrian Martinez: “We let our fans down, we let Coach Frost down, and I wanted this game. And we wanted this game. ... Obviously, I feel terrible.”

» Only Nebraska lost a quarterback to injury for any length of time during the season — and to some degree lost three. Minnesota couldn’t afford to get starting quarterback Tanner Morgan dinged up after his co-starter, Zack Annexstad, got hurt before the season. And Morgan, along with Iowa’s Nate Stanley and Wisconsin’s Jack Coan, has stayed upright. Here’s why: All three teams can run the ball without the significant aid of a quarterback run game. Minnesota uses a designated Wildcat quarterback — Seth Green — for goal-to-go situations.

Including sacks, NU’s quarterbacks have toted the ball 142 times this season, followed by Minnesota (57 when Green’s carries are included), Iowa (49) and Wisconsin (37). The Huskers’ lack of quarterback continuity — in practice, in games — hasn’t helped, and it limited the potential of the 2010, 2013, 2018 and even 2016 Huskers, who had zero chance at Iowa that season with Tommy Armstrong’s hamstring and Ryker Fyfe’s broken hand.

» Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota stuff the run. All three allow less than 120 yards per game; Wisconsin and Iowa are at 84 and 88 rushing yards allowed. Nebraska is near the Big Ten basement at 174 per game and 4.33 yards per carry. Bad run defense from NU is not new. It spans three coaching staffs and four defensive coordinators during the Big Ten era. One good run defense (2015) since joining the league. That bunch allowed 3.77 yards per carry. Minnesota (3.61) is better than that right now.

» Time of possession is often proven overrated, but the Badgers, Gophers and Hawkeyes sure believe in it. They rank No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 in the Big Ten, and all three rank in the nation’s top seven, too. Who else is in the nation’s top seven? Two other teams you secretly respect: Kansas State and Utah.

Since Fleck took the job in 2017, Minnesota has never ranked lower than fourth in the Big Ten in time of possession. Iowa has been in the Big Ten’s top five in three of the past five years. Wisconsin has been No. 1 in three of the past five seasons. Under Frost, NU was 13th last year and is 12th this year.

Explosive offenses — rooted in big plays and lots of points — don’t need time of possession. They’re like North Carolina basketball, which aims to use its superior athletes and conditioning to outrun slower, less talented teams. Frost has often had those offenses and the elite players needed to run them.

It’s not a stretch this season to argue the skill of Iowa compares evenly to Nebraska. Minnesota and Wisconsin surpass it.

“I think these are the best wide receivers we’ve faced this year,” Penn State coach James Franklin said Tuesday of Minnesota’s group.

Still, all three teams operate at a measured pace. It protects their defense and wears over time on the opponents’ defense.

Wisconsin’s defense faces 58.5 plays per game, followed by Iowa (59.6) and Minnesota (61.1). Nebraska’s faces 73.1.

That’s part of why NU has allowed 105.3 yards per game in the fourth quarter, more than Wisconsin (88.1), Iowa (85.4) and Minnesota (70.1).

Perhaps 35 yards doesn’t seem like a lot. But it’s probably the difference between 4-5 and 6-3 or 7-2. The difference between beating Colorado, Indiana and Purdue.

The Gophers experienced that in the nonconference slate, narrowly beating South Dakota State, Fresno State and Georgia Southern. A loss in any of those — or a loss at Purdue (Minnesota won 38-31) — may have altered the trajectory of Fleck’s team. He may not have that contract extension today.

But he does, and Minnesota turns into November with more momentum than most expected — other than Fleck. His athletic director, Mark Coyle, got to have a good day Tuesday.

“He laid out a very specific plan of what he was going to do at the University of Minnesota,” Coyle said. “He hasn’t missed on any of those yet, he’s hit all those benchmarks and exceeded them.”

If Fleck can pull off a sold-out TCF Bank Stadium, he really will have done something.

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