The news on Wednesday morning that the Big Ten was reversing course and will play football this fall prompted a succinct but welcome response from Gophers coach P.J. Fleck on Twitter.
The two-word statement, on “Row the Boat, Ski U Mah” stationery, was just what Gophers fans were waiting for after the Big Ten originally pulled the plug on the season on Aug. 11 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Now comes the next challenge for Fleck and his Gophers: building on a breakthrough 2019 season that saw Minnesota post a 11-2 record, beat Penn State in a stirring home contest, defeat Auburn of the mighty SEC in the Outback Bowl and finish No. 10 in the final Associated Press poll.
“We had a team Zoom this morning, and we were so thankful and everybody was so excited to be back playing football, doing what we love … especially with the new safety protocols in place,” Fleck said in a Big Ten Network interview later Wednesday morning. “… We’re very excited about having a date that we know we can look forward to and get back on the field here soon.”
That date of the Gophers’ first game will be Oct. 23 or 24, which means Fleck will have roughly five weeks to prepare his team for an eight-game regular-season schedule, plus a cross-division finale. That would be either the Big Ten title game should Minnesota win the West Division or a game against an East Division team that finishes in the same place as the Gophers do in the West.
It all starts with a makeshift training camp that carries the added complications of classwork.
“The preparation is key from this point forward,” Fleck said. “Whoever does it better for longer, that’s going to be the key. We talked about the story of ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’ this morning. I know it sounds crazy, but we’ve got to find a way to do this thing juuuust right — juuuust right.”
The Gophers certainly will have a different look this fall. Gone from the highly productive offense are All-Big Ten receivers Tyler Johnson, now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Rashod Bateman, who announced a week before the Big Ten’s original decision to postpone the season that he would forgo his final two seasons to concentrate on preparing for the NFL draft.
When asked if he would try to convince Bateman to revisit his decision, Fleck said, laughing, “Already have. The first text I got was him. [I asked] are you sure?’ ” Bateman has signed with an agent, so unless the NCAA allows for exceptions, he no longer would have college eligibility.
“We support Rashod 100 percent,” Fleck said during his KFXN radio show Wednesday night. “… He has done so much for our program in such a short amount of time. We’re so happy for him. We’re so thankful for the time we got with him.”
The Big Ten’s decision to play football this fall hinged largely on the availability of daily antigen tests for COVID-19, and Fleck sees the conference, players and public sharing responsibility to make the season work.
“The biggest thing the Big Ten has done with the rapid testing is to make sure that when we get on the field … that is a COVID-free zone,’’ he said. “We have to do our part.”