Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck had one question for players at the team meeting the night before facing Nebraska: Is it worth it?
The coach went around to nearly each player and shared a story about him. For running back Shannon Brooks, he asked if it was worth it to return from multiple injuries for his final season. For receiver Tyler Johnson, he asked if it was worth it to come back for his senior year instead of declaring for the NFL draft. For running back Rodney Smith, he asked if it was worth it to rehab an ACL tear to play his sixth year.
“I want it to be worth it,” Fleck told them. “I want you to love it here. I want you to enjoy your experience. At times, is it going to be hard? Yeah. But … has it been worth it up to this point?”
If any of the players waffled on their answer, by Saturday night the choice might have become clear. With a decisive 34-7 victory against Nebraska, the best the Gophers have looked all season, the Gophers climbed to 6-0 and bowl eligibility.
They’re one of 12 undefeated FBS teams and four in the Big Ten at 3-0. Their eight-game winning streak dating to last season is the longest for the team in 70 years. They are ranked No. 20 in the Associated Press Top 25, their first AP ranking since 2014.
“Being hurt last year and deciding to come back, that was in my vision,” Smith said of the Gophers’ current success. “It was one of the reasons I chose to come back. I believed that this team could be special. And we are special.”
The win against Nebraska showcased many strengths, from the rigorous run game to the determined defense. Individuals stood out, sure, but the collective play was most impactful. The running backs are a good example of that. Smith, Brooks and Mohamed Ibrahim split carries fairly equally. Smith was the only one to eclipse 100 yards, but Brooks was right behind at 99 yards, and Ibrahim scored three touchdowns.
Ibrahim also heard a special message from Fleck before the game, when the coach asked the 5-10, 205-pound player if it was worth it to leave Maryland for Minnesota when everyone told him he was too small to play at this level.
“Being able to know that we all have different stories, going through a lot of stuff together, individually, and that all just comes together for one big elite story,” quarterback Tanner Morgan said of the meeting. “And we’re writing our story now each and every week.”
Fleck paid special attention to the seniors on the team, including fourth-year sophomore Antoine Winfield Jr. He said that class has been through the most change and adversity, both on and off the field, including the coaching change and a player boycott before Fleck came on in 2017.
“That senior class has seen a lot. Is it worth it to feel what they felt in that locker room right there being 6-0?” Fleck said. “We have a powerful thing because they never had to stay. And who was it hardest for? Them.”
Winfield said he thinks the meeting definitely influenced the Gophers’ play against Nebraska.
“It just really hit to heart,” Winfield said. “Where we came from and how much we’ve overcome in the past few years.”
The Gophers are now on the precipice of more history. Should they beat abysmal Rutgers on the road the coming weekend, they would be 7-0 for the first time since 1960, a national championship season. They’d also be 4-0 in the Big Ten Conference for the first time since 1967, the most recent season the Gophers took home a Big Ten title.
As the Gophers try to accomplish these feats, Fleck will keep asking his players: Is it worth it?
“I hope they all continue to say yes,” he said.