IOWA CITY – P.J. Fleck refers to each week as a "one-game championship season," the Gophers football coach's nomenclature designed to make sure his team doesn't look past the task at hand.
So, after the Gophers emerged with a 12-10 victory over No. 24 Iowa on Saturday, Fleck repeated his mantra — but with a twist.
"We're 1-0 in the championship season of Iowa, and I told our team that same thing," Fleck said. "It's 1-0 and it's one win, but it's a big win. It's a big win for our state, our university."
Indeed it was, and that was apparent in reactions from Fleck and his players after they ended an eight-game losing streak to the Hawkeyes and won in Kinnick Stadium for the first time since 1999.
Gophers players rushed the north end zone to retrieve and revel with Floyd of Rosedale, the 98-pound statue of a prized bronze hog that now will spend a year in Dinkytown. Fleck, after his postgame duties were completed, returned to the field in the empty stadium to take it all in. Veteran players like sixth-year senior center Nathan Boe remembered those Gophers who came before him.
"We've won the axe [Paul Bunyan's Axe against Wisconsin] and now we've got the pig, finally," Boe said. "This one goes to all the people that I've played with over the years that didn't have that opportunity — Conner Olson and Sam Schlueter, Daniel Faalele, Blaise [Andries]. All my best friends. They're blowing up my phone right now."
The postgame celebration on the field lasted for roughly 20 minutes, then it moved to the locker room. Like after any win, Fleck body-surfed atop his players, but this version meant more. When a few players moved to a nearby interview room, the smoke of victory cigars was apparent. The Gophers milked the celebration for all it was worth, and that shouldn't be surprising considering the opponent.
Iowa has given its northern rival fits in recent years. Saturday's victory was the first for Fleck in seven tries against the Hawkeyes. Two of the losses — in 2019 and '21 — prevented the Gophers from reaching the Big Ten championship game. Last year, the Gophers were on the verge of scoring the winning touchdown only to have the Hawkeyes force two turnovers late in the fourth quarter and escape with a 13-10 victory.
Saturday, Iowa nearly had another great escape when Cooper DeJean returned a punt 54 yards for a touchdown and an apparent 16-12 Hawkeyes lead with 1:21 to play. Instead, replay officials ruled DeJean had given an invalid fair catch signal, and that wiped out the touchdown.
That he finally beat Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz had to be satisfying for Fleck. While Fleck is respectful of and admires what Ferentz has accomplished, they are rivals, not buddies. After a 2020 game in Minneapolis in which Fleck called late timeouts to avoid a shutout and Ferentz responded by calling his timeouts in succession, Ferentz famously said, "We figured we'd take Floyd with us and leave the timeouts here." Brian Ferentz, the embattled Hawkeyes offensive coordinator and the head coach's son, also has criticized Fleck's recruiting methods.
Saturday's victory also had meaning moving forward for the Gophers. At 4-3 overall and 2-2 in the Big Ten, they are a game behind Wisconsin for the West Division lead. Their upcoming schedule — vs. Michigan State, vs. Illinois and at Purdue — is made up of teams that are a combined 7-15. Then comes the closing two weeks with a game at No. 3 Ohio State and home vs. Wisconsin in the finale. The victory over Iowa at least put them back in contention for a West title in the Big Ten's final season of division play.
Saturday night, the Gophers allowed themselves to bask in the present for a while before focusing on the future.
"It's the next right step for this football team to take all the other necessary actions moving forward," Fleck said. "… See you back home with Floyd."