MINNEAPOLIS -- In P.J. Fleck’s first two seasons as head coach, the Minnesota Golden Gophers were 0-11 when trailing going into the fourth quarter. That has changed with back-to-back comeback victories to open this season.
They were down 21-14 to Fresno State after three quarters before winning 38-35 in double-overtime Saturday, Sept 7. Two weeks ago, the Gophers trailed South Dakota State 21-20 before a late touchdown and two-point conversion turned it into a 28-21 victory.
The rallies were, albeit, over two programs in lower-level conferences or divisions, but Fresno State is a favorite to win the Mountain West and South Dakota State is one of highest-ranked programs in FCS.
Gophers defensive coordinator Joe Rossi held the same job at FCS-level Maine from 2009-11 and saw how bigger programs didn’t handle the threat of getting beat by an FCS school very well.
“A lot of times panic sets in late in the game,” he said last week.
But in the past two games, what Rossi saw from the Gophers was poise. “Guys knew what they needed to do,” he said. “They went out and executed on both sides of the ball and got the W.”
Winston DeLattiboudere was at the right place to pounce on the Jackrabbits’ gift fumble with eight minutes left in the fourth quarter of the opener, which Minnesota capitalized on with a Mo Ibrahim rushing touchdown two minutes later.
When Fresno State retook a 28-21 lead midway through the fourth quarter, DeLattiboudere said he felt a connection between leadership he and other seniors were trying to provide and younger players trusting them.
“I feel like that emotional support kind of came back into play in Fresno State,” DeLattiboudere said. “Nobody was losing their mind, nobody was freaking out. That touched my heart as a leader.”
That was evident after a roughing-the-passer penalty allowed the Bulldogs to score a TD and force a second overtime.
Gophers offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca said he didn’t have to wait until late to see conviction from his offense, which lost two of its four fumbles that night.
“(It) was a team that had a lot of reasons to lose their focus, to lay down, to say it wasn’t going to be their day. ‘We’re unlucky today.’ Blah, blah, blah, blah,” Ciarrocca said. “All the things that people that look for excuses grab hold of. What I saw was a team that was resilient all day and showed their character.”
The Gophers recovered two of their own fumbles on the final drive of the fourth quarter, but that last one came with a bit of insight. Receiver Chris Autman-Bell received single coverage, and Fleck then injected himself into the ensuing fourth-and-13 play call because he felt it would be available again if they went back to a similar look.
A layer of ingenuity came in — when it mattered most.
During a timeout, Ciarrocca said the Gophers staff created a new play to try to draw double coverage for Rashod Bateman and Tyler Johnson, the Gophers top two receivers. Bateman has led Minnesota with 17 targets this season; Johnson has 11 and Autman-Bell had four up to that point.
“We kind of drew the play in the dirt,” Ciarrocca said. “We were trying to do whatever we could to make sure Chris had a one on one and (we were) thinking they were going to double Tyler and Rashod.”
That’s how it went down as the safeties focused on Bateman and Johnson, and Autman-Bell found a sliver of space with a double move into the corner of the end zone. Morgan’s pass went just over Bulldogs cornerback Juju Hughes, and Autman-Bell snared it and barely got his foot down in bounds.
“It had to be perfect,” Ciarrocca said of the pass, “and it was perfect.”
Morgan and offensive guard Blaise Andries said there wasn’t anything special that went into team’s tenor before the last drive. The Gophers offense took the field with under six minutes left and needed 59 yards for a TD.
“We just have to go execute,” Morgan said. “… These are the moments you look for. You play college football to play in big-time moments. Why not us? Why not go and do that right now? You want to be in those big-time situations and come out on top. It was elite for us to see that.”