Thank you for reading Football Across Minnesota (FAM), my weekly column that tours football topics in our state from preps to pros. You can find all the previous FAM columns right here. — Chip
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Steve Johnson is a planner, and by nature of being a college football coach, he's also a worrier. So when Bethel's road trip in the second round of the NCAA Division III playoffs this past weekend started with travel hiccups, the head coach had concerns about the potential impact on his team.
The challenge on the field was daunting enough. Linfield, undefeated and ranked fifth nationally, had a 60-2 home record since 2011.
Bethel's chartered flight to Oregon on Thanksgiving was scheduled to leave MSP at 6 p.m. That got delayed when one of the pilots called in sick.
The next delay came when the Royals were told that the New England Patriots, in town to play the Vikings that evening, got to depart before them.
Bethel's plane finally left at 1 a.m. and arrived in Portland at 4 a.m. Pacific time — 6 a.m. on their body clocks.
Kickoff was 30 hours later.
"It's frustrating because you can't be mad at anybody, which isn't a good thing anyway," Johnson said. "But it's out of everybody's control and there is some anxiety on top of the whole thing. You're playing for something that's pretty important."
The Royals dominated the game, upsetting Linfield 30-13 to advance to the national quarterfinals for the fifth time in program history. They play Saturday at Mary Hardin-Baylor, the defending national champions.
The mature response by the Royals did not surprise their head coach.
"These kids can handle it," Johnson said.
One of the program's tenets is gratefulness. That means being grateful for opportunities and keeping a positive attitude, regardless of the situation.
"We weren't getting to let it affect what we did on the field," said senior quarterback Jaran Roste, who accounted for four touchdowns in setting another school record, career touchdown passes.
Roste was a redshirt freshman in 2018 when Bethel advanced to the quarterfinals. A few people noticed and remarked that he didn't act overly excited Saturday after getting another shot to advance even further as a senior.
"We're supposed to be here," he said. "That's our mindset."
Johnson calls this squad his most "complete" team in 33 seasons at Bethel. The Royals returned 20 of 22 starters and 28 of their top 30 players.
"We knew this was a good team," he said.
Expectations soared when the "straw that stirs the drink" — in Johnson's words — decided to return this season. Last winter Roste mulled whether to use his extra season of eligibility or move on to the next chapter in life.
He got hired by Bethel in a supervisory role with the BUILD program, which teaches students with intellectual disabilities independent living skills. Roste's job involves finding internships for the students.
He also teaches four classes while taking classes himself in a master's program for K-12 education.
Since he was going to be on campus working full-time, Roste called it a "no-brainer" to play one more season. Coaches accommodate his hectic schedule, though he hasn't been so fortunate with injuries.
Roste suffered a dislocated elbow on the fourth play of the season, which caused him to miss the first start of his career.
He returned a week later and led Bethel to a win over St. John's.
Roste suffered a sprained shoulder in early November that left him in considerable pain during subsequent games. Then he came down with the flu before the playoff opener at Wheaton College two weeks ago, which caused him to miss two practices.
The coaching staff was discussing getting Roste his own room at the team hotel to limit his contact with teammates. As they waited in the hotel lobby during check-in, they looked over and Roste was asleep on a couch.
"It's definitely been a turbulent season," Roste said.
He now holds school records for touchdown passes, rushing touchdowns, passing yards and total offense. He calls those records "a cool thing" but that's not why he returned this season. He craves team success and wants to extend his final season as far as possible.
Johnson became uncharacteristically emotional at a team meeting Saturday before the game. His emotions were still flowing Sunday evening, choking back tears, as he relayed what he told his team.
"When I showed up at Bethel, we didn't know if we would win or not," he said. "Our goal was for the guys to love the Lord, love football, love each other. On top of that, you're going to know you played Bethel."
By that he means a tough, physical style of football. Johnson felt his team had lost some of its edge in recent weeks. The Royals were playing well and winning, but Johnson didn't want his team to lose its identity.
"The toughness piece is huge," he said.
His players heard the message and responded with a performance that made their veteran coach proud.
The flight home was more enjoyable.
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LOVE OF THE GAME
Once a Gopher, now a Falcon
Bryan Cupito finished his Gophers career as the school's all-time leading passer, a record that has since been broken. He is quarterbacking a different team now, from a different position, and doing quite well.
Cupito led the Phelps Falcons 11U football team from Minneapolis to a second-place finish in a national tournament in Tennessee last week. Cupito serves as head coach. His son Carter is the quarterback.
The tournament featured 77 teams from 22 states. Teams were divided into divisions based on strength. The Falcons went 3-1 in the top division, defeating teams from Georgia, Indiana and Ohio. They lost to a team from Cupito's hometown, Cincinnati, in the championship game.
"I love coaching them," Cupito said. "Love it."
Cupito moved his family from a Twin Cities suburb to Minneapolis a few years ago and immediately got involved with the Phelps sports program, which has produced numerous standout athletes, including former Gophers receiver Tyler Johnson.
Cupito fell in love with the program after meeting Phelps Activities Council president Jim Halbur, who works tirelessly on behalf of the non-profit organization to provide kids from Minneapolis a positive outlet through sports.
Cupito's team plays in a handful of national tournaments each season. The Falcons traveled to Tennessee, Chicago and Iowa this season. They also played a team from Kansas City at U.S. Bank Stadium.
The team pays for trips through fundraisers and donations. Future Hall of Fame NFL receiver Larry Fitzgerald Jr. purchased new helmets for the program. Fitzgerald keeps tabs on the team and was ecstatic over the second-place finish.
Cupito loaded up his car with players for the 16-hour drive to Tennessee. Other parents car-pooled with them.
Cupito said his players feel like part of his family because of the time they spend together.
"Nearly all the kids play football, then basketball together," he said. "We never end — literally do stuff every week all year. I am a true influence in these kids' lives and I love my kids being around kids and families with all different backgrounds. I have kids sleeping at my house every weekend so they can make games. It's a lot more than just coaching."
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- Athan Kaliakmanis: Gophers freshman quarterback showed why fans should be optimistic about his future by passing for 319 yards and two touchdowns in a win over Wisconsin.
- Kirk Cousins: Overcame an early interception and another near INT to post his best game of the season — 299 yards passing and three touchdowns — in the Thanksgiving win over the Patriots.
- Justin Jefferson: Can we just make this a weekly thing? Jefferson continued to make amazing look routine against the Patriots.
- Anthony Hockett: Bethel defensive back intercepted two passes in the end zone in the second half of a win over Linfield in the Division III playoffs.
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He said what?!
"I remember people, any time they'd see us, would say, 'Just beat Wisconsin, you can stay forever. Just beat Wisconsin, you can stay forever.' Well, we've beaten Wisconsin twice [before Saturday], and you all wanted me fired last week." — Gophers coach P.J. Fleck after a 23-16 win over the border rivals.
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Numbers to know
13: Points allowed by Bethel in Saturday's playoff game against Linfield, which entered the game ranked fourth nationally at 47.9 points per game.
6: Sacks by Bethel in the game, the team's most since 2019.
58: Rushing yards needed by Mohamed Ibrahim in Gophers bowl game to break Darrell Thompson's career school record of 4,654.
9: Undefeated teams in the seven Prep Bowl matchups this week, including all four teams in the two largest classes, 6A and 5A.
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P.J. Fleck's comment about "you all" wanting him fired after the Iowa loss was unnecessary and has shifted the conversation away from what should be a talker this week: the superb performance by freshman quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis and the optimism that he created moving forward.
No Twin Cities media member or mainstream outlet called for Fleck to be fired. If people on a fan website message board or Twitter account went down that path, that's a silly overreaction by them that doesn't deserve one second of attention.
If that odd comment was Fleck's way of swiping at criticism of him, he needs to understand that valid criticism is part of the job he holds. He has elevated the program and in doing so raised expectations. He should welcome that. If the Gophers fall short of their own goals and fan expectations that are reasonable — which clearly was the case this season — criticism will follow. That's just part of the deal.
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Grab your popcorn
Vikings vs. Jets, Sunday at noon, U.S. Bank Stadium. The Vikings return from a mini-bye after playing on Thanksgiving with a chance to clinch the NFC North with a win, coupled with a Detroit loss to Jacksonville.
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An important 48 hours for …
All the coaches and players taking part in the Prep Bowl on Friday and Saturday. They already had an extra week to prepare this year. Their game plans and prep work should be pretty well complete by now. The participants should take time to enjoy the excitement that will build in their schools throughout the week.
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A FAM FINAL WORD
One thing that has emerged from Fleck's postgame comment is passionate debate on the Gophers season and Fleck's tenure overall. I have been surprised by the intensity of it. Pleasantly surprised. As a lifelong college football fan raised in the South, I've witnessed how much this sport can stir intense passion and emotion. That's part of investing oneself in the beauty of college football. It warms an old man's heart to see fans get so worked up about college football. Well done.
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Thank you for reading Football Across Minnesota. I'll publish this each Tuesday morning in time for your lunch-hour reading. I appreciate feedback so please reach out anytime.
Chip (@chipscoggins on Twitter)