December 1, 2021

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Gophers making rare nonconference road trip for game that could define season

5 min read

He’s had his team practice on its outdoor field. He’s held training camp drills in the indoor facility. He’s held dress rehearsals at Huntington Bank Stadium. And he’s even had his team bivouac 15 miles southeast to the Vikings compound in Eagan.

P.J. Fleck wanted to keep his Gophers football players on their toes during training camp, providing challenges as simple as a change of venue to get them prepared for the new experiences that await during the season.

The coach’s plan will be put to the test this week as the Gophers prepare for their first road game of the season, at Colorado on Saturday. They’ll be making only their third nonconference road trip in Fleck’s five seasons at Minnesota, and the trek to Boulder includes a pivotal game that will help define the Gophers season.

“We do everything we can to educate them and prepare them for travel,” Fleck said Monday. “You just can’t pick them up in the offseason and take a flight to Colorado and come home. You move things around, you practice in different areas and different environments. You constantly keep them a little bit uncomfortable and not have them just get set in their settings because the settings are going to change.”

The setting for Saturday will be a beauty — Folsom Field with the Rocky Mountains in the background. It’s a popular destination for Gophers fans, with the university selling out its allotment of 3,000 tickets and requesting more from Colorado officials.

The game’s intrigue ramped up a notch over the weekend when Colorado led then-No. 5 Texas A&M late in the fourth quarter before falling 10-7 to the Aggies in Denver. The Buffaloes and Gophers each carry 1-1 records into Minnesota’s first game against a Pac-12 Conference team since a 48-14 drubbing of Oregon State in Corvallis in 2017. If the Gophers could beat Colorado and Bowling Green, their Homecoming opponent on Sept. 25, a 3-1 mark when resuming Big Ten play on Oct. 2 at Purdue would look a whole lot better for the Gophers than 2-2.

Fleck expects a stiff challenge from Colorado, which went 4-2 in 2020, including a loss to Texas in the Alamo Bowl.

“They’re really good. Very physical on defense, really good tacklers,” Fleck said. “Their linebacking corps is really talented. They love to play football, you can tell.”

In preparing his team for the trip, Fleck takes the lessons from his other two ventures west since arriving in Dinkytown.

In late summer and fall of 2017, wildfires ravaged Oregon, and it had an impact on the Gophers’ travel plans. They originally were scheduled to fly into the Eugene airport, but it was closed, forcing them to land in Portland. On the 95-mile bus ride from Portland to Corvallis, a bridge was closed, causing a detour.

“It took hours and hours on the bus,” Fleck said. “Everything along the way, I’m saying, ‘We don’t let the circumstances dictate our behavior. We’re coming out here and there’s going to be challenges throughout the game. It’s just part of it.’ ” The Gophers proceeded to wallop a Beavers team that would fire coach Gary Andersen after a 1-5 start.

Two years later, the adversity the Gophers faced against Fresno State came on the field. The Bulldogs led 28-21 before Chris Autman-Bell tapped one foot in the extreme corner of the end zone to complete a 20-yard touchdown catch on fourth-and-13 with 46 seconds left in the fourth quarter.

In the second overtime, Antoine Winfield Jr. swooped in out of nowhere to intercept a would-be TD pass, a spectacular walk-off ending to secure Minnesota’s 38-35 win. “People don’t understand how hard it is to play at Fresno,” Fleck said.

The Gophers will try to add another memorable moment on this latest trip west.

“It’s finding out what type of team you have,” Fleck said. “It’s overcoming adversity.”

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