The Gophers know that they need to take care of business. If they win the final two regular season games, the Big Ten Championship awaits. A win there and the possibility of a College Football Playoff remains. However, the Gophers must shed last week's loss if they hope to get there.
From bad defense in the first half to an offense that couldn’t capitalize in the red zone in the second half, the Gophers struggled to claim a winnable game in Iowa.
Yet, at 9-1, the Gophers know that the Big Ten West and the Big Ten Conference are within their grasp.
“We didn't play our best football, simple as that,” said head coach P.J. Fleck. “We've got to be able to respond.”
For the veteran players, they knew that they could not sit and sulk after the loss to the Hawkeyes. Immediately after the game, they were focused on rallying the team to get past what occurred in Kinnick Stadium.
“The sun is going to rise, you’re going have another opportunity to get better,” redshirt senior defensive lineman Winston DeLattiboudere said on Tuesday. “We were hugging, loving up on guys because it was tough, it wasn’t an easy thing to be able to deal with in that moment. But we knew if we didn’t move on from it, then we couldn’t help elevate the team to where it needed to be.”
Fleck knows this team still controls their own path and that everybody needs to move forward, because the Gophers still have the opportunity to accomplish historic feats.
“We ended it, and we became 0-0, and all of our focus went on to Northwestern, and they flipped the switch like that,” Fleck said about his team overcoming the loss to Iowa. “This is a very mature group that knows how to do that. “
Minnesota sits at 9-1 overall, with a 6-1 conference record. If they win their next two games, the Big Ten West crown is theirs with a chance to likely play Ohio State for the Big Ten Title. The Gophers play Northwestern who is 2-8 and 0-7 in conference play, and then second place Wisconsin, which is likely a game that will not only be for Paul Bunyan’s Axe but also decide the West Division. However, Minnesota must keep the same mindset of taking it game by game.
"Just be in the moment, last week was last week," said senior linebacker Thomas Barber about his message to the team. "Coach Fleck showed us a great video about responding and things we got to do to control our own destiny that we still can have and that was my message really, just stay in this moment that we have right now."
With Wisconsin in second place, the one thing the Gophers can’t do is overlook their game this week on the road in Evanston, Ill. against Northwestern. This year has not been kind to the Wildcat program. The only wins the Wildcats have on the season are over UNLV, who is last in the Mountain West Conference and UMass, who is 1-10 on the year. Minnesota goes into the game as a 13.5 point favorite.
"We don't look at the 0-7 record. We look at them as their 0-0, we're 0-0 and they're also the defending Big Ten West Champs," Barber said.
Not to mention, Gophers quarterback and rising star Tanner Morgan is currently in concussion protocol, leaving his playing status for this Saturday up in the air. Freshmen Cole Kramer and Jacob Clark are the backups. Offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca had good things to say about the two if they have to play.
"They prepare every week as if they're going to be in there the second play of the game," Ciarrocca said. "They're mature beyond their age from that standpoint, but that's really, that's the standard here. You got to be ready to be the next man, so they're ready."
Minnesota hasn't won in Evanston since 2013, when Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner were the quarterbacks and David Cobb was the starting running back. Nobody on this Minnesota Gophers team is taking this game lightly.
“To be a champ, you've got to beat the champ,” Fleck said. “Northwestern is still the defending Big Ten West champions, and that's our message to our players.”