John Shipley: P.J. Fleck and the Gophers put Nebraska in the rearview mirror

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Oct. 17—At the pre-season Big Ten Media Days in Indianapolis, Nebraska football coach Scott Frost followed Minnesota's P.J. Fleck to the dais and declared, "I'm not into sloganeering."

Maybe he should be.

While Frost struggles to resurrect Cornhuskers football, Fleck and the Gophers are distancing themselves from the rest of the Big Ten West Division also-rans, including once-mighty Nebraska.

With a 30-23 victory on Saturday at Huntington Bank Stadium, the Gophers are now 4-1 against Nebraska in Fleck's five seasons and have won three straight against the former national power for the first time since 1954.

Since the Gophers' breakout season in 2019, Minnesota is 0-4 against West Division powers Wisconsin and Iowa but 9-0 against everyone else in the division (Illinois, Nebraska, Northwestern and Purdue). This is important, and it's clearly rubbing some of the vanquished the wrong way.

After a Purdue player ridiculed Fleck's approach, there was an icy postgame handshake between the Gophers coach and Purdue's Jeff Brohm following a Gophers victory in 2019. Frost, Nebraska's quarterback when the Cornhuskers won the last of their three national championships in the 1990s, took a swing at Fleck's "Row the Boat" mantra at Lucas Oil Stadium in August.

"I played for a coach at Nebraska in Coach Osborne," Frost told reporters. "He didn't need all the sayings and slogans. He just taught us the right way to do things, and we went to work."

After the Gophers' win on Saturday, Fleck started his postgame comments by saying, "That was truly culture versus skill, that's what I saw today."

"Whatever else anyone wants to say about us or our program or our culture, feel free," he added. "We've been called every name in the book."

Say what you will about Fleck, the sloganeering is working. There was no shortage of snickers when he came to Minnesota in January 2017 and declared that he would mentor his players "academically, socially (and) spiritually," but his players are buying what he's selling.

An announced crowd of 45,436 watched Saturday's victory, which seems small. It was a beautiful fall day, and you'd think Minnesota fans would never tire of watching their team beat Nebraska, which remains responsible for the program's worst loss, 83-14 in 1983. But there clearly is residual disappointment from the Gophers' last home game, a 14-10 loss to Bowling Green, now 0-2 in the Mid-America Conference.

"That was a really difficult loss," Fleck said Saturday, "and with all due respect to Bowling Green, I was probably the worst coach I've been in five years, and I had to look myself in the mirror and say, 'You were awful. Awful.' "

Since then, the Gophers (4-2, 2-1) have won two straight and proved Saturday they have a better program than Nebraska.

It's not easy to win in the Big Ten, and coaches that aim to rebuild programs don't just have to collect the occasional pelt from a national brand; they need to build a stronger infrastructure than the other also-rans in his division. Fleck has put Nebraska in Minnesota's rearview mirror.

The Gophers weren't world-beaters on Saturday, but they played an excellent first half of football. The Cornhuskers by contrast did almost nothing right, missing a field goal and extra-point attempt, failing to score from the Gophers' 2-yard line and — when they had one last chance to score the go-ahead touchdown — taking a safety on an intentional grounding penalty.

"Culture versus skill," Fleck repeated. In all, he used the word "culture" 18 times.

Minnesota might have thrown away a little fan equity with that Bowling Green loss, but what's important is the Big Ten — and specifically the West Division. If the Gophers don't routinely beat the teams in their own area code, they will never move into the Badgers' and Hawkeyes' neighborhood. That's where Minnesota wants to be and preferably because they drove either Wisconsin or Iowa out.

It starts by dominating your peers. That's progress.

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