CHICAGO — Minnesota’s 2018 season wasn’t all that impressive on the surface.
The Golden Gophers finished 7-6, including a 3-6 mark in Big Ten play that placed them in a tie for fifth in the West division.
A shocking 22-point victory over the University of Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium to end the regular season, however, perhaps did more for their program than bowl eligibility or a typical rivalry triumph ever could.
It marked Minnesota’s first win over the Badgers since 2003 and largest victory in Madison since 1936 — exactly the type of win coach P.J. Fleck sought when trying to show the Gophers are moving in the direction of future success.
“Winning that game,” Fleck said during Big Ten Media Days, “especially how we won it and where we won it and hadn't won there since 1994 — hadn't won the game in 14 straight years — breaking that mold creates this hope for the future. That’s what I hope our state of Minnesota understands, is we're doing things that haven't been done in a very long time. Maybe ever in some areas.”
Fleck often harps on first-time accomplishments, but he and the Gophers must now attempt to do something UW did for 13 straight years — keep Paul Bunyan’s Axe.
A once-great rivalry that had become far too predictable suddenly has new life, and build-up to the Badgers’ trip to Minneapolis on Nov. 30 is likely to surpass many matchups of the past decade-plus.
“Getting the axe back I thought meant a lot for both teams,” Fleck said. “I know maybe Wisconsin is not happy that we have the axe, but it's healthy for the rivalry … after 14 straight years of one of the greatest rivalries in college football, Paul Bunyan's Axe being one-sided.”
Minnesota lost its first four conference games last season. Fleck fired defensive coordinator Robb Smith after an embarrassing, 55-31 loss at Illinois on Nov. 3 before the Gophers won three of their final four games — including the blowout at UW and a Quick Lane Bowl victory over Georgia Tech.
Big Ten media members picked Minnesota to finish sixth in the West division this season, but Fleck said the strong end to last season could serve his team well heading into his third year at the program.
At the very least, the Badgers likely won’t be able to walk over their biggest rivals any longer.
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“It’s always interesting to us,” UW inside linebacker Chris Orr said. “I’m sure they can’t stand us and we can’t stand them. It hasn’t changed our energy towards the rivalry.
“(But) it’ll definitely probably be more intense (this year). I’m not going to sit here and fake it and say no.”
Harbaugh holds no regrets about Meyer comment
When asked Friday at Big Ten Media Days, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh didn’t backtrack from a comment he made about former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer earlier this week.
Speaking on The TK Show podcast, Harbaugh praised Meyer’s phenomenal coaching record before saying, “But also, controversy follows everywhere he’s been.”
“I don’t think it was anything that was anything new or anything of a bombshell,” Harbaugh said when asked Friday if he had regrets about the comment. “It’s things that many of you all understand and have written about.”
Targeting rule changes
Bill Carollo, the Big Ten Coordinator of Football Officials, spoke Friday morning on changes to targeting rules this season.
Targeting reviews must now be confirmed for the penalty to be upheld. In previous years — like any other review — if officials threw a targeting flag and replay was inconclusive, the play would stand and the player would be disqualified.
Carollo said that based on numbers from last season, the change could reduce targeting penalties by 10 percent.
“All elements of targeting have to be confirmed,” he said. “We want to get this play correct. It’s a very important play as far as health and safety, but the penalty is also our largest penalty. So we want to make sure that we get that correct, and if we aren’t sure, the player will stay in the game.”
Another change this season further punishes repeat offenders of targeting. If a player receives his third targeting call of the season, he’ll be disqualified from the game and sit out an additional full game.