Gophers' P.J. Fleck wonders if Saturday was a turning point


MINNEAPOLIS—It's quickly becoming "typical" Zack Annexstad.

In the season opener Thursday, Aug. 30, the Minnesota Gophers' freshman quarterback put his arm around head coach P.J. Fleck's shoulder after an early fumble and told Fleck, "We're gonna be all right."

On Saturday, Sept. 8, after Annexstad helped lead a go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter, Fresno State was responding with its own drive down the field and Annexstad again reassured his coach.

"Comes over to me, right on the final drive—which, probably is not the best time to come over to me—looks over at me, smiles and says, 'Isn't this fun?' " Fleck said.

"I do not think my answer was, 'Yeah, yeah, this is really fun, Zack. Yeah, having a great time.'

"But this was a great football game," Fleck said.

Annexstad helped make it that way on the previous drive with a crucial scramble and completion on the go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter. On third-and-9 from Minnesota's 44, Annexstad avoided two Fresno State rushers—running 20 yards backward, zig-zagging for another 15 yards and then finally forward six more.

After all that, he threw across his body to Tyler Johnson, who leaped and pulled down a 13-yard reception at the near sideline to keep the drive alive.

The Gophers scored five plays later.

Antoine Winfield Jr.'s game-sealing interception proved Annexstad right; watching the 21-14 victory over Fresno State was fun indeed for Minnesota fans.

"I think that was the game-changing play," Gophers linebacker Blake Cashman said of Annexstad's scramble and completion. "That was a crazy play by Tyler, and hats off to Zack to be able to extend the play to make it happen."

The fast-talking Fleck isn't often at a loss for words, but he stumbled over a few after Saturday's game.

"I've been proud of a lot of football teams in my career, but there is like a different level when you become really proud of a football team and (Saturday) this is one of—oh, boy—this is one of those that I, uh, this is one that, um, this is up there," Fleck said. "This is one that I will always remember—no matter what. This is one of those games that can do a lot for your season."

After a 5-7 debut season as the U's head coach in 2017, Fleck felt Saturday night could be a turning point. "It wasn't good enough on a lot of fronts," he said, "but they found a way to win."

The win included resolve after Minnesota lost its best offensive player, Rodney Smith, to a leg injury on Minnesota's third offensive play. Fleck told WCCO-AM on Sunday, Sept. 9, that the Gophers are still awaiting test results on Smith's left leg.

After the game, Fleck called the post-game locker room scene "emotional."

"He was very proud of our team for coming together as a whole," said Seth Green, who scored both of the Gophers' touchdowns in the wildcat formation. "Definitely just fighting through adversity, all the work that we put in, definitely just making sure that we came together, and playing for each other. I felt like he was very proud of us for that."

Winfield's play was the highlight of the night, but beyond remembering that play, he said he'll recall a recurring theme.

"Just our ability to come together as a team because it was a team win," Winfield said. "We needed everybody, so when I look back, I'll just be like, I remember the feeling of how we all came together and were connected.