PJ Fleck

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No. 18 Minnesota upsets No. 12 Auburn in Outback Bowl for most wins since 1904

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Minnesota sophomore Bryce Witham was far from a household name, even in the state of Minnesota. But bowl season can make a hero and a program legend out of anyone at any given moment. Williams entered the Outback Bowl with just one reception in two games this season. He ended the season with three catches, and his two receptions in the Outback Bowl could not have been more significant as No. 18 Minnesota (11-2) scored a 31-24 victory over No. 12 Auburn (9-4) in the Outback Bowl.

Witham caught his only touchdown of the season, and his fourth-down reception late in the fourth quarter helped to allow Minnesota to run out the clock on the Tigers. For Minnesota, the underdog mentality was well suited and perhaps there was no player better to thrive in the moment the way Witham did. Minnesota dominated Aubrun in the stat sheet with close to 500 yards of offense against a solid defensive team from the SEC. Auburn managed just 232 yards of offense, and just 56 of those yards came on the ground.

Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan passed for 278 yards and two touchdowns. Both of Morgan’s touchdowns were thrown to Tyler Johnson, who caught 12 passes for 204 yards. Young rising running back Mohamed Ibrahim led all players with 140 rushing yards, including some hard runs at the end of the game to pick up a first down and contribute to milking the clock in its entirety. Auburn’s Bo Nix was limited to 17-of-26 for 176 yards and a touchdown.

The win was Minnesota’s second striaght postseason bowl victory under PJ Fleck. It was also Minnesota’s first bowl victory over an SEC team since beating Alabama in the 2004 Music City Bowl. The Gophers have won each of their last three bowl games played, dating back to 2016. Minnesota’s 11 wins this season are the most for a single season since the Gophers won 13 games in 1904. Minnesota’s only other seasons with 10 or more wins came in 1900, 1903, 1905 and 2003.

Although this season may have fallen shy of playing for a Big Ten title in what has been a dream season for the Gophers, Minnesota continues to look to have plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the future of the program, beginning in 2020 as a rising contender in the Big Ten picture.

Minnesota will begin the 2020 season with high expectations. The season will begin at home against FAU in non-conference play on Thursday, Sept. 3. Auburn will begin its 2020 season two days later on Sept. 5 with a home game against Alcorn State.

CFT Previews: Outback Bowl

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WHO: Minnesota (10-2) vs. Auburn (9-3)
WHAT: The 34th Outback Bowl
WHEN: January 1 at 1:00 p.m. ET on ESPN
WHERE: Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, FL
THE SKINNY: PJ Fleck and Minnesota nearly rowed the boat to a Big Ten title shot before springing a few leaks down the stretch in division play. Regardless of falling shy of the goal of a Big Ten West Division championship, Fleck has Minnesota heading to the Outback Bowl full of confidence in what they can accomplish. Facing them will be an Auburn team led by freshman quarterback Bo Nix who is not at all short on confidence after his first season with the Tigers.

Nix has thrown for 2,366 yards and 15 touchdowns and run for 301 yards and seven touchdowns, so Minnesota will have to be concerned about keeping Nix from extending plays with his feet. For a defense that doesn’t exactly bring a tremendous amount of pressure up front, that could be a recipe for some unfortunate results for the upstart Gophers. It just so happens that Auburn could cause some big problems with their defensive front. The Tigers ranked third against the run in the SEC this season and allowed just nine touchdowns on the ground all year long. Marlon Davidson and Derrick Brown are among the SEC leaders in tackles for a loss this season. Both players could have skipped the bowl game to focus on their future in the NFL, but both have confirmed they intend to play in the game.

They will hope to find a way to rattle the Big Ten’s leading passer (in yards per game), Tanner Morgan. The sophomore passed for 2,975 yards and 28 touchdowns with six interceptions this season, and he owns one of the highest completion percentages in the Big Ten. Rashod Bateman and Tyler Johnson each had over 1,000 yards catching a combined 131 passes from Morgan, and each accounted for 11 touchdown receptions in the process.

Minnesota’s offense is as balanced as they come, but whether that will be enough to hold off the Auburn defense may be a tall order for these Gophers. Auburn obliterated Purdue last year. Minnesota will at least keep things considerably closer this year.

THE PICK: Auburn 33, Minnesota 17

Minnesota regents approve new contract for P.J. Fleck

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As expected, Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck now has a brand new contract to remain the head coach of the Golden Gophers. After agreeing to terms on a new deal and the school officially recognizing the new deal last week, just before a monster of a win for the program, the contract has been given the final green light to become officially official after the Board of Regents voted to approve the terms of the new contract.

As previously reported, Fleck will have a new seven-year contract good through the 2026 season and the terms of the buyout were significantly increased to fend off would-be suitors looking for a new head coach this year on the coaching carousel, and potentially in the next few years as well before the buyout drops off in price. Of course, any school with deep enough pockets willing to pony up to get Fleck to be their guy will still make a phone call or two, but Fleck appears to be settled in with Minnesota for the foreseeable future.

In addition to Fleck seeing his own pay increase, Minnesota’s regents also signed off on providing more combined salary for an assistant coaching staff with an extra $1.05 million being placed in the budget for assistant coaches.

Now that all of that contract business is squared away, Fleck can continue to focus on Minnesota’s next task on the field. This week, Minnesota heads on the road to face Iowa in a pivotal Big Ten West Division game. The Gophers remain undefeated and have climbed to No. 8 in the College Football Playoff ranking. A win on the road against Iowa could set Minnesota up for a regular-season finale riding an 11-0 record and the division already clinched for a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game.

It’s no wonder Minnesota decided to lock down Fleck while they still could.

No. 17 Minnesota makes B1G statement in upset of No. 4 Penn State

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The No. 17 Minnesota Golden Gophers (9-0, 6-0 Big Ten) didn’t buckle under the pressure of playing the most anticipated home game in program history in decades, if not just generations. Minnesota improved to 9-0 for the first time since going 13-0 in 1904 with a 31-26 victory against No. 4 Penn State (8-1, 5-1 Big Ten).

PJ Fleck came to Minnesota with his Row the Boat mentality, and it continues to pay dividends. Minnesota was the more effective offense from start to finish as Penn State’s defense played its worst game of the season. Penn State’s receivers couldn’t hold on to passes when Sean Clifford was able to get a good pass off, but the Gophers secondary continued to do their part to make sure Penn State couldn’t find big plays through the air, as the Gophers have done all season. Meanwhile, on the other side of the ball, Tanner Morgan proved a connection with Rashod Bateman was one of the most reliable connections in the Big Ten, and Penn State couldn’t handle it. Bateman caught seven passes for 203 yards and a touchdown, with first downs on nearly all of his other receptions. Tyler Johnson also went for over 100 yards on seven receptions from Morgan, who ended his day with three touchdowns.

Minnesota’s touchdown drives were no fluke either. The Gophers scored two first-quarter touchdowns on a Penn State defense that had not allowed a first-quarter touchdown all season. Minnesota scored on drives of 95, 87, 61, and 75 yards, with two of those long touchdown drives coming off Penn State interceptions deep in the Minnesota end of the field. Antoine Winfield Jr. intercepted Clifford twice inside the Minnesota 10-yard line (one on a deep pass over the middle of the opening drive of the game and the other when Penn State was near the red zone and about to kick a field goal at the very least).

After Penn State cut the Minnesota lead down to five points with a Journey Brown touchdown run in the fourth quarter, the defense had their best stop of the game, giving Penn State one last chance to steal the win. But Clifford was intercepted a third time, this time by Jordon Howden just inside the end zone.

The outcome of the game may not have a dramatic impact in how the Big Ten championship picture plays out, because Minnesota still would have had a lead in the division race and Penn State’s Big Ten East odds likely would still be determined by what happens in a few weeks at Ohio State had Penn State won this game, but there is no taking away from the importance of this game for both teams. For Minnesota, the Gophers are now one giant step closer to playing in their first Big Ten Championship Game. Minnesota will own a two-game lead on either Iowa or Wisconsin, depending on which team wins that head-to-head matchup this afternoon. Minnesota still has to play both Iowa and Wisconsin, but having a minimum of a two-game lead in the division race with just three games remaining is a wonderful spot for Fleck and his program to be sitting.

Penn State, fresh off their highest ranking in the CFB Playoff rankings, will take a fall out of the top four but will still get a chance to settle the division race with Ohio State in two weeks. A spot in the New Years Six lineup still remains a likely destination for the Nittany Lions, but there is some work to do in order to re-enter a playoff spot.

Penn State’s next game will be at home next week against Indiana. The Hoosiers, who will travel to Happy Valley with seven wins already this season (7-2), will be coming off a bye week.

Minnesota goes on the road next week to play at No. 18 Iowa. The Hawkeyes will be coming off a road game at Wisconsin, a critical game in the Big Ten West Division standings. Minnesota may be about to row their boats right on down to Indianapolis.