P.J. Fleck after beating Penn State: 'This is what we can become'

MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck had envisioned a scene like the one that took place Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium, as Minnesota students and fans filled the field to celebrate another set of milestones.

A 31-26 victory over No. 4 Penn State marked No. 17 Minnesota's first at home against a top-five opponent since 1977, when the Gophers knocked off top-ranked Michigan three years before Fleck was born. Minnesota is 9-0 for the first time since 1904, and 6-0 in Big Ten play for the first time since 1961. The Gophers validated a start that many questioned and showed they belong in the College Football Playoff conversation.

"We've done a lot of things we haven't done in a while," senior defensive end Carter Coughlin said.

The win set off a raucous celebration from the sellout crowd. Minnesota players ran to the Penn State sideline to collect the Governor's Victory Bell trophy, which the Nittany Lions had held since 2016. Students streamed onto the field as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" played. Wide receiver Rashod Bateman, who set a stadium record with 203 receiving yards -- the second-highest total in team history -- couldn't remember a thing afterward, saying only, "A bunch of people. That's it."

When Fleck entered the locker room, he jumped into his players' arms and crowd surfed -- a tradition he started while coaching Western Michigan, which went 13-1 with a Cotton Bowl appearance in 2016. He then awarded the game ball to the entire state, giving the ball to university president Joan Gabel, with hope that it eventually reaches Gov. Tim Walz.

"That's why you take a job," Fleck said. "That was the whole vision, to be able to have that field swarmed on a top-five team in the country, and to put us undefeated. And when everybody told me, 'Don't take the job, don't take the job.' My life is usually about, 'Don't do that, don't do that. OK, I'll do that. That sounds like a good job for me.'

"That was the vision."

Fleck, 38, began the week by agreeing to a new seven-year, $33.25 million contract with Minnesota. He had been mentioned as a candidate for the coaching vacancy at Florida State, and likely would have been a candidate for other openings in the coming weeks.

But Fleck now appears committed to Minnesota, where he's 21-13 in three seasons. Fleck's record through his first 34 games with the Golden Gophers mirrors that of Murray Warmath (20-12-2), who led Minnesota to its most recent national championship in 1960.

"To see in the locker room the former players brought a tear to my eye," Fleck said. "We've had seven head coaches in around 14 years. It's hard to gain traction with former players. Everybody's connected to someone else, and we feel like, 'I played for that guy.' You played for our Minnesota. That's who you played for, and I just get to represent that.

"Part of the reason why we signed the contract was we want to bring everybody back. We want everybody to be like tonight every single game."

Fleck added: "We can create some type of dynasty, you can create some type of cultural sustainability, because your alums are the most important part of what we do."

Coughlin didn't know if fans would rush the field. He sought out fellow senior Kamal Martin, a starting linebacker who couldn't play because of injury, and his roommates.

"It was just amazing to see the excitement on everybody's face, how together Minnesota is right now," said Coughlin, a native of Eden Prairie, Minnesota, who was already in the program when Fleck arrived in 2017. "It's really special."

Facing the nation's No. 1 rush defense in Penn State, Minnesota used a pass-oriented game plan to attack and got results from quarterback Tanner Morgan, who completed 18 of 20 passes for 339 yards and three touchdowns. Minnesota eclipsed 400 yards on offense before the end of the third quarter against a PSU defense that came in allowing just 280 yards per game.

Morgan found Bateman for a 66-yard touchdown on Minnesota's opening possession. The two connected on a 36-yarder late in the third quarter to set up Minnesota's final score.

"The guy just gets open," Morgan said. "All you've got to do is put it in his area and he's going to make a play. He does elite things for us."

The Gophers' run-pass option and ability to get the ball out quickly neutralized Penn State's pass rush. Minnesota also featured some formations with six offensive linemen to keep PSU's rushers away from Morgan.

Penn State scored only two touchdowns in six red zone opportunities. Cornerback Jordan Howden had the clinching interception after Penn State drove downfield in the final minutes. Safety Antoine Winfield Jr. had two interceptions against Penn State's Sean Clifford, who had just three all season entering Saturday.

The Nittany Lions (8-1, 5-1 Big Ten) never led and fell behind 24-10 late in the first half.

"The atmosphere was great," Penn State coach James Franklin said. "They played really well and executed their plan. We took too long to adjust and settle all of our guys down on the road in the Big Ten. Second half was a different story, but obviously it makes it challenging and difficult to start our game like that against a really good team."

Penn State still controls its fate in the Big Ten East Division but likely must win the rest of its games, including a Nov. 23 trip to No. 1 Ohio State. Minnesota remains two games up in the Big Ten West but still faces rivals Iowa (road) and Wisconsin (home).

The Gophers have never appeared in the Big Ten championship game and most recently won the conference in 1967.

"This is what we can become," Fleck said. "I'm sure there was some people on the final drive who said, 'Oh, here we go again.' Gotta let go of all of that. Fifty years ago, 40 years ago, 30 years ago, 20 years ago, 10 years ago, we've got to change at some point. This team's proven that.

"Does that mean we're going to win 'em all? No. But they're doing a lot of special things that you can keep building on to make your culture stronger, and your program stronger, and make it more of a national brand."