Sid Hartman
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What a difference a week makes when it comes to Big Ten football.

Last week, Michigan ran for 371 yards against the Gophers, with two Wolverines exceeding 190 yards. The Gophers rushed for 52 yards after the first half as Michigan ran at will.

Saturday, the shoe was on the other foot. The Gophers beat Nebraska 54-21, getting a 100-yard kickoff return from Rodney Smith to start the game and a 73-yard run from Demry Croft and featuring the Gophers running the ball like Michigan did against them last week.

“What you saw today was trust in the process. That’s what I saw today,” Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said. “We got better, last week to this week. Lot of adverse situations last week, like I said, we got whipped. That was the quote last week. This week, we got better. It’s very simple. We had a great practice Sunday and it got real. Monday had a day but hit academics harder than they ever have.

“Then the Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday practices, they practiced better than they have all year. For a team that was 4-5 overall and 1-5 in the Big Ten, everybody on them hard, tough, for them to come out and play the way they did today, that shows their courage, their strength. The process, the culture. I’m proud of them for that.”

Fleck told the team before the game that they needed to get off to a good start against the Cornhuskers.

“We talked in the locker room that two teams that were 4-5, it’s a big game for both of them,” Fleck said. “Whoever kind of strikes first, you can kind of take the spirit out of somebody and we did that right off the bat, I thought, with the initial kickoff.”

The Gophers got the fast start that Fleck hoped for on Smith’s return. “I think the last time we opened a game with a kickoff return [for a touchdown] was Tyrone Carter,” Fleck said. “So, a shout-out to TC. Thanks for supporting our program.”

The Gophers ran for 409 yards, the eighth most in school history.

“I thought Rodney ran spectacularly and Kobe [McCrary] ran tough,” Fleck said. “Demry did a tremendous job running the offense. Demry ran for 183 yards as a quarterback, which is a school record. Rodney had 279 all-purpose yards, which is seventh all-time.”

Smith ran for 134 yards and McCrary 93 as Gophers scored the second-most points (and most since 2006 against Indiana) in a Big Ten game. Croft and McCrary each ran for three touchdowns.

One highlight for Nebraska was JD Spielman. The son of Vikings GM Rick Spielman had nine catches for 141 yards.

A week ago, Nebraska forced a good Northwestern team into overtime before losing. Now the Gophers will find out if they can continue their performance at Northwestern next week.

Elflein no surprise

In an interview in May with Gophers offensive line coach Ed Warinner, he came off as someone who would not be the least bit surprised if Vikings fourth-round draft pick Pat Elflein became the first rookie center to start for the Vikings since Mick Tingelhoff, who did it way back in 1962.

And that is exactly what has happened, as Elflein has been the Vikings Rookie of the Year so far in helping to anchor a much-improved offensive line.

Warinner coached Elflein for five years at Ohio State and predicted that the Rimington Award winner would be able to adapt very quickly to the NFL.

Warinner was asked last week about Elflein’s early performance as a pro.

“We always thought that he would have a chance to be very successful,” Warinner said. “I told the Vikings I thought he would be a 10-year starter if they took him, and hopefully he can stay healthy and do that.”

Elflein said a lot of his college improvement can be credited to Warinner. “He helped me a lot,” Elflein said. “He’s a great O-line coach, and he’s doing great at Minnesota, as well. A lot of the guys he coached at Ohio State are now starting in the NFL. That says something about him.”

Warinner said one of the biggest credits to Elflein is his intelligence, and that shows in his ability to make all the calls at the line of scrimmage. That is extremely difficult for a rookie without any experience playing in the NFL.

“That’s one of the things they always wonder if a rookie center can do, learn the communication and learn how to be the quarterback of the offensive line,” Warinner said. “Obviously, Pat is a hard worker and a smart football player, so they’ve obviously done a good job of teaching him what he needed to know and he kind of sets it up there up front, the blocking, patterns, identification calls. He and the quarterback I’m sure are tied together doing that.”

Another great example of Elflein’s early poise — he has been able to start at center while also dealing with all of the quarterback shuffling between Sam Bradford and Case Keenum, with Teddy Bridgewater now involved in that mix as well.

Does Warinner take any credit for Elflein’s early success?

“Most of the credit should go to him. Players become great players because they want to be and they work hard. Some accept coaching better than others, and Pat is one of those guys who accepts coaching very well,” he said. “So he accepted the coaching and he should have a bright future ahead of him.

“I’m so excited that I’m in Minneapolis and he’s here and I get to watch him. I know the success of the Vikings is big in this community and I’m glad Pat is part of that.”

JOTTINGS

• It might not have seemed like a big deal at the time, but the Vikings held New Orleans to only 19 points and 344 yards in Week 1. Those totals remain season lows for the 6-2 Saints. It’s been part of season-long excellence for the Vikings defense, which ranks fourth in the NFL in yards per game (282.1) and third in points per game (16.9).

Anthony Barr said the Vikings are going to have to step up their run defense after giving up 115 yards on 22 carries to the Browns. “I think that’s the biggest thing,” the linebacker said. “Stop the run and everything else kind of falls into place.”

• One player Gophers men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino said he believes could play a big role this season is senior forward Davonte Fitzgerald. “We’re being very patient with him because of his medical history in the past,” Pitino said. “But I think once he gets more live game experience in practice he’ll feel more comfortable, and that will help him.”

• Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle said construction of the Athletes Village is on schedule and on budget and set to open in January.

• The Gophers men’s hockey team continues to fail to sell tickets the way it did in the WCHA days. Last weekend with Michigan State here, the Gophers drew an announced 7,484 on Friday and 8,349 on Saturday, nowhere near capacity.

• Lefthander Tyler Jay, the No. 6 overall pick in the 2015 MLB draft by the Twins, has had a rough start to the Arizona Fall League. Jay has a 5.87 ERA through eight games, with 10 hits, including two home runs, five walks and nine strikeouts in 7⅔ innings.

• Twins Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey said 2016 first-round pick Alex Kirilloff, an outfielder, is recovering well from Tommy John elbow ligament surgery and should be ready for spring training.

• Among the MLB free agents available are 19 former Twins, including former All-Stars Francisco Liriano, Pat Neshek, Eduardo Nunez and Brandon Kintzler.

Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. Monday and Friday, 2 p.m. Friday and 10:30 a.m. Sunday. shartman@startribune.com