As fall Saturdays go, things couldn't have proceeded much better for the Gophers football team.
On a brisk, sunny and festive day in front of more than 45,000 at Huntington Bank Stadium, the Gophers beat rival Nebraska 30-23, saw their offense emerge from a recent funk and watched their defense stiffen with a goal-line stand and a fourth-quarter safety.
The topper came about three hours later, when Big Ten West Division-leading Iowa lost 24-7 at home to Purdue, leaving Minnesota (2-1 Big Ten) a half-game behind the Hawkeyes (3-1) in the standings.
It's as if that friendly neighbor vacuumed up all your leaves, cleaned the gunk out of your gutters and winterized your sprinkler system, all free of charge.
"That was a really important win for us,'' Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said. "I'm really proud of our players' grit, toughness, ability to overcome.''
By building a 21-9 first-half lead and holding on for the victory in the second half, the Gophers (4-2) won their second consecutive Big Ten game and kept their main goal in front of them: winning the West Division title. Since their season-opening loss to Ohio State, the Gophers' most likely path to attain that lofty goal would be running the table in their final eight conference games. With six games to go, that's still possible, using the math test but maybe less so when applying the eye test.
Still, with the Nov. 13 trip to Iowa on the schedule, a Minnesota win there would swing any potential head-to-head tiebreaker the Gophers' way.
Of course, projecting that far ahead with a team that has experienced the ups and downs as the Gophers have – their top two running backs lost for the season, their top receiver missing the better part of three games – is premature. Instead, the Gophers' focus is Saturday's home game vs. Maryland.
After the win at Purdue, Fleck during the bye week had his coaches self-scout each other, offense against defense, defense against offense.
"That was the first time I've done that. I loved it,'' offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. said. "We treated a bye week Monday like it was a true game-plan day – 6 something in the morning until 7 at night, tearing up every aspect of each other and getting together and basically telling each other, offense and defense, what you're not very good at.''
That seemed to work well. Sanford's offense rode the accurate hand of Tanner Morgan, who completed 14 of his first 15 passes and had a school-record run of 16 completions in a row. Add in a much healthier Chris Autman-Bell (11 catches, 103 yards and a TD), and the Gophers offense moved the ball pretty much at will in the first half, reeling off TD drives of 61, 79 and 75 yards.
"Guys were making plays,'' Morgan said. "It felt really smooth.''
That performance was in stark contrast to Minnesota's last home game, the 14-10 loss to Bowling Green, a 31-point underdog. The result prompted Fleck to do some soul-searching.
"Three weeks ago, that was a really difficult loss,'' he said. "With all due respect to Bowling Green, I was probably the worst coach I've been in five years. I had to look myself in the mirror and say, 'You were awful, awful.' ''
Since then, two seven-point victories have followed, bringing a sunnier outlook. Fleck expects that more games will fall into the category he calls narrow, a word that includes his "row'' slogan.
"We're 3-1 in narrow games,'' he said. "The way we're built right now, we've got a lot more narrow games [ahead]. We've got to find a way to win those narrow games. When we had 11 wins in 2019, we were 7-1 in one-possession games. That's how you get to those seasons.''