MINNEAPOLIS — Blasts from an airhorn pierced eardrums and injected anxiety into the hearts of Gophers football players at random times during team weight-lifting sessions last winter.
The sound meant two players would be called out for a head-to-head pull-up contest. While competitors chalked up their hands, teammates had to pick who they thought would win and stand behind them. Losers had to hold a plank position.
The concept was to create synthetic pressure on the players so that when the big moments came on the field, they were ready to respond. Moments such as Saturday, when No. 8 Minnesota (10-1, 7-1) plays No. 12 Wisconsin (9-2, 6-2) for the Battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe, the Big Ten West Division title and a spot in the conference championship game.
This offseason dynamic was borne of a series of January meetings when players returned to campus after winter break.
The Gophers had just created early 2019 buzz by thoroughly beating the Badgers, 35-17, in late November and rolling Georgia Tech, 34-10, in the Quick Lane Bowl. P.J. Fleck, 12-13 in his first two years in Dinkytown, was going to be expected to win in his third season.
The first meeting was team-wide.
“Everyone there to set the tone of what we felt this team could accomplish,” Fleck explained. “There were a lot of things that we showed them that we’ve never showed them before. … Belief that we had as a staff in them of what we felt like they could accomplish.”
Fleck declined to share specifics, “Until the right time.”
The second meeting was players-only, called by quarterback Tanner Morgan and other members of the team’s “Leadership Council.”
The message? “We can be special this year,” receiver Rashod Bateman said. “We just have to work. At that moment, the team did it.”
To keep players guessing, the airhorn for pull-up contests sometimes sounded at the start of workouts. Other times it was in the middle or end.
Defensive end Winston DeLattiboudere said on top of trying to pull your body weight, there was the added weight of peer pressure. Based on how many teammates stood behind them, favorites and underdogs were established; there was no chance to jump the fence if your pick was failing. Players added their own commentary.
“Guys would hype it up: ‘You don’t have many guys around you! How you going to react? What’s your response going to be?’ ” DeLattiboudere said. “That kind of made it cool. It was like a little Roman Coliseum battle-type thing going on every winter workout session.”
One pull-up match pitted Morgan versus receiver Chris Autman-Bell.
“I think I did one or two maybe,” Morgan said with a laugh. “… Yeah, he beat me.”
But Morgan believes those offseason moments led to poise during nonconference play, like when Morgan and Autman-Bell connected for a 20-yard touchdown on fourth-and-13 near to force overtime at Fresno State on Sept. 9. That score helped propel a 38-35 overtime win.
Rising to the moment in that late summer heat in California’s Central Valley was made possible in the Minnesota winter.
“We treated it like it’s the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl,” Morgan said. “We treat every game, every practice, every rep (like) it could be your last. That is how much it matters. So, when you apply so much pressure to every single day, you don’t really feel outside pressure and noise.”
The Gophers needed three comebacks to pull out nonconference wins over programs outside the Power Five, inspiring Sports Illustrated’s Pat Forde to call the Gophers “shakiest 3-0 team in college football history.”
But the Gophers didn’t fret. Again, that interspersed that pressure from January found its way into spring practices and fall camp. Position groups did their own things, with safeties coach Joe Harasymiak asking players to diagram Xs and Os on the white big board.
When they took the field in August, coaches kept track of all one-on-one drills, whether it was running back vs. linebacker in an open-field tackling period or defensive back vs. receiver in passing matchups.
“They applied the pressure all the time,” linebacker Thomas Barber said.
There wasn’t a posted leaderboard or anything, but score was kept.
“It was something (coaches) kept to themselves,” Barber said. “We didn’t really know our record. Coach Fleck has mentioned it a couple of times, but it was really for us to either show out or pick who you had to pick.”
Bateman credited the offseason work for giving them the confidence to go up early and lead throughout in an upset of then-No. 4 Penn State on Nov. 9.
“There’s a difference between playing football and championship football,” Fleck said. “… We wanted them to get to that level where they can handle the moment. You know, we haven’t had that moment in a long time here, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t ready.”