MINNEAPOLIS — They were all business Saturday, just as they were all business the previous week, and the week before that, and the week before that.
The Gophers football team grabbed an inferior opponent by the lapel and stared daggers into their eyes. This, perhaps, is the best quality of a team that carries grand aspirations.
The Gophers bring intensity and stay-in-the-moment focus to every Big Ten game, a collective mind-set that flows from their head coach and snuffs out any temptation to glance at the schedule and envision a dream scenario.
But here it is, that dream scenario now reality, a moment to embrace and cherish: The Gophers checked another box to set up the biggest home game for the program since Michigan came to town on a Friday night in 2003.
The Gophers assured themselves more national recognition by throttling Maryland 52-10 to remain undefeated and extend their lead in the Big Ten West to two games.
The Gophers enter their bye week knowing they will return to the spectacle of a visit by undefeated Penn State on Nov. 9. A clash of two 8-0 teams with a possible first ever visit by ESPN College GameDay. Penn State is ranked No. 6 nationally, the Gophers No. 17. Both likely will be ranked higher by then.
There shouldn’t be an empty seat inside TCF Bank Stadium for this one. If a game of this magnitude doesn’t generate a sellout, there is no hope for college football in this market.
“We had a huge party in there,” coach P.J. Fleck said, motioning to the locker room. “It was a heck of a party. I told them to enjoy it. They have to enjoy it.”
Seriously, folks. This is a big deal, a significant moment for Fleck’s program. An opportunity to make the college football world take notice. A chance to silence skeptics who nitpick the quality of the Gophers’ schedule to death. This will be a fun two weeks of anticipation.
Fleck’s last words to his players in the locker room before heading into the bye week was to enjoy this moment but do so “smartly.”
“We have a very special thing going,” Fleck told them. “Make sure we do the right things. Have fun. Celebrate. But do the right thing.”
For those new to Gophers football, this is rare stuff. The Gophers are 8-0 for the first time since World War II, 1941 to be exact. They are 5-0 in the Big Ten for the first time since 1961.
The Gophers joined the 1904 team in scoring at least 28 points in their first eight games. The program played a few high school teams back then. Some wiseacres would note that the current Rutgers team might belong at that level too, but the Gophers don’t have to apologize for someone else’s misery.
Fleck deserves considerable credit for keeping his team locked in and soundly in the moment. People rip the Gophers’ soft schedule, but upsets happen all the time in college football. Oklahoma lost to Kansas State on Saturday. Wisconsin lost to Illinois.
Teams routinely overlook inferior opponents or don’t play up to their capability in those situations. The Gophers are destroying teams. They took the life out of Maryland from the opening minutes. That’s what feels different about this squad compared to years past. The Gophers have outscored their five Big Ten opponents 206-72.
Their approach to preparation is mature. Their style of play is balanced. They are well-coached.
The offense ranks in the Top 25 nationally in scoring. The defense has allowed only three touchdowns in the past four games, all of them coming in fourth quarter garbage time. Both sides are legitimate and filled with playmakers.
“This team has the formula to do whatever they want to do,” Fleck said.
Penn State will present a different caliber of test. The Nittany Lions are worthy of their lofty ranking. The Gophers will have to be at their best on the big stage.
“Pressure is earned, pressure is a good thing,” Fleck said. “Pressure is awesome.”
College football’s spotlight will shine on Fleck’s program next week. A true big game is happening. Buckle up and enjoy it. This is how being relevant in college football feels.