Gophers football: After sweet taste of bourbon, P.J. Fleck and Co. need to avoid another sobering letdown

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The bottle’s label says it’s a 20-year-old Pappy Van Winkle, but it really had Iowa’s name on it.

For seven years, that bourbon sat untouched in a cabinet at P.J. Fleck’s home. Visitors would ask: “Let’s open that!” And Fleck would slightly kill the party by saying, “no.”

As the losses to Iowa stacked up since 2017, Fleck would see the bottle in the cabinet from time to time and his mouth would water. He knew how to savor it because the collector had cracked into a similar 15-year Pappy after Minnesota ended its long losing streak to Wisconsin in 2018.

But after Fleck and the Gophers beat the Hawkeyes for the first time in seven attempts and captured Floyd of Rosedale last Saturday, he and wife Heather poured themselves each a finger of expensive Kentucky bourbon.

“It tasted just as good as I thought,” Fleck shared Monday. “It was worth the wait.”

But soon after that late-night sip, Fleck was off to bed. He and his team needed to hydrate with a trap game coming Saturday. Minnesota’s newfound path to the Big Ten West division title must go through struggling Michigan State at 2:30 p.m. at Huntington Bank Stadium.

The Gophers (4-3, 2-2 Big Ten) must put the euphoria of a rare rivalry win over the Hawkeyes behind them to face the uninspiring Spartans (2-5, 0-4), who have lost five straight games since head coach Mel Tucker was let go for a sexual harassment scandal in early September.

As is custom on Sundays, Gophers players stood up in a team meeting and literally patted each other on their backs for winning the previous day. Then they figuratively put on their “leather vets” to prepare for the equivalent of road rash coming via brutal honesty in their film-study breakdowns.

“We made a ton of mistakes as an offense; I made some mistakes, too,” said quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis, whose accuracy issues persisted against Iowa. “But we put our leather vets on. And we are just excited to play Michigan State. They are a very good team. Of course, the Iowa win was a great win for us. We were happy to do it, but we know we still have a lot of games left to play.”

Veteran players Chris Autman-Bell, Brevyn Spann Ford and Nathan Boe spoke to the offense every day during the Iowa week. They made sure that side of the ball was locked in to the task at hand.

“It was one of those things where you didn’t want to make that game bigger than it had to be because once you win that game, the next game is just as big,” co-offensive coordinator Greg Harbaugh said Wednesday. “You don’t want to let the joy in the success you have from Iowa affect you against Michigan State.”

Gophers spokesmen from Fleck on down have always talked about “going 1-0 in the (fill in the opponent’s name) championship season.” It’s a mantra used to keep the focus on that week’s opponent and not get caught up in the big picture.

But fully turning the page was a conversations among coaches and with players, defensive coordinator Joe Rossi revealed.

“Are you going to be able to put back-to-back (wins together)? Or are we going to come out and feel like we’ve had one good one and now we are going to allow ourselves to slip?” Rossi asked. “Those are all the internal conversations that you have with your position groups and meeting with the defense. Then you have to go out there and play.”

A major talking point is how Michigan State remains a Big Ten opponent and has a high level of talent and athleticism that hasn’t been reflected in their losing record.

There is a residual aspect Fleck does want to carry over from the Gophers’ Iowa win. After taking lumps in a collapsing loss at Northwestern and blowout home defeat against No. 2 Michigan, he said the victory was necessary for his younger and still-developing team.

“You want to see that type of win shoot confidence into them,” Fleck added during his KFAN radio show. “This isn’t about an older team winning that game and resting on their laurels. We were trying to get our team to really believe in themselves more than anything.”

After early-season struggles, linebacker Devon Williams played his best game as a Gopher in Iowa City. “It helped us a lot,” he said of the win. “I think most of us were confident. We just had to come together. We had to lead each other and we had to help each other. We had to be there for each other. Play a lot more as a team. I felt like we went out there in Iowa and did that. It was fun.”

The enjoyment of the rivalry win permeated the visiting locker room at Kinnick Stadium and through the five-hour bus ride back to Dinkytown.

Rossi said he received the highest number of text messages from former players than at any point in his Minnesota tenure. “That (win) was for all those guys, too,” Rossi said.

Before Fleck sipped the Pappy, he touched the pig trophy on the field in Iowa City. He became emotional, left the crush of players celebrating and put his head in a towel.

“Because you know what it means to your state, your fans, the players,” Fleck told the Pioneer Press about his reaction. “It’s why we do this — for moments like that. They are not all guaranteed and not to last. That is what rivalries are about. Better enjoy the moments while you have them. As coaches, like I said in (the news conference Monday), you are hired to do those things for other people. For all the former players. For all before us — FABU.”

But as Fleck knows, the idea of FABU doesn’t start and stop on rivalry weeks.

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