With his football team's hopes of finally beating a bitter rival first gaining hope and then disappearing like a cloud of breath on a frigid fall night, P.J. Fleck acknowledged that the Gophers' 13-10 loss to Iowa on Saturday took a heavy emotional toll on his team.
"There wasn't a dry eye in that locker room,'' the coach said.
So, Fleck's task Sunday was to get his players to quickly bury the disappointment. That couldn't have been easy after the Gophers had two promising fourth-quarter possessions end with a lost fumble inside the Iowa 10-yard line and an interception at the Hawkeyes 25 that led to the visitors' winning field goal in the final minute.
"You move on as fast as you can, and that's what we did yesterday,'' Fleck said Monday. "We brought them in, spent five minutes in a team meeting [on Iowa] and moved right on to Wisconsin. That's what we needed to do as fast as possible.''
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The Gophers, who lost the Floyd of Rosedale trophy to Iowa for the eighth consecutive year, have another trophy for which to play. Minnesota (7-4, 4-4 Big Ten) will face Wisconsin (6-5, 4-4) on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium and try to win Paul Bunyan's Axe for the second consecutive year and the third time in Fleck's six seasons in Dinkytown.
Fleck said his players returned to practice Sunday, "focused and ready to go. I didn't expect anything less from them.''
The Gophers will have the chance to prove their resilience against a Wisconsin team that started the season 2-3, leading to the firing of coach Paul Chryst. Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard took over as interim coach, and the Badgers have won four of six games with him in charge, including Saturday's 15-14 triumph at Nebraska that was built on a 12-point fourth-quarter comeback.
Fleck doesn't see the Badgers as vastly different with Leonhard in charge. He still expects that Wisconsin's approach of running the ball well behind massive offensive linemen and playing solid defense led by mobile linebackers will continue.
"The word 'athleticism' comes to mind,'' he said. "They're just really athletic at every position. Whether they're 325 pounds whether they're 180 pounds, the whole team's athletic.''
While overcoming the sting of the loss to Iowa was a priority, Fleck doesn't want to bury the lessons that the Gophers learned — or the positive things they accomplished, such as Mohamed Ibrahim shredding the Hawkeyes for a career-high 263 yards on 39 carries. Iowa entered the game allowing an average of 88.6 rushing yards per game.
"There's a lot of positives to take from that football game,'' Fleck said. "We did everything but win the football game. That's what's really hard, when you're swallowing that pill, to really outplay a team the entire game and have multiple opportunities to win the game and not do it.''
Winning the key moments, though, was what the Gophers couldn't accomplish. Athan Kaliakmanis not seeing an open Brevyn Spann-Ford for a possible touchdown pass late in the first half. Matthew Trickett's missed 34-yard field goal attempt on the next play. Then came the back-to-back late fourth-quarter gut-punches the Gophers absorbed: Ibrahim's lost fumble at the Iowa 9-yard line on a ball knocked out by Hawkeyes All-America linebacker Jack Campbell, and Campbell's interception of Kaliakmanis and subsequent 30-yard return to help set up the winning field goal.
"The first one that made a catastrophic error was going to lose that football game, and we made two of them,'' Fleck said. "We did everything we possibly could to put ourselves in position to win. And I think everybody in that stadium, except for maybe the last minute of the game, thought we were going to win that football game.''