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Fleck sees signs that Gophers have traded 'want to win' for 'refuse to lose'

Minnesota takes to the field before the start of a NCAA football game against Miami (Ohio) at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

MINNEAPOLIS—Overheard comments from some Gophers football players made P.J. Fleck's skin crawl last year.

" 'Oh, it's just this opponent,' " Minnesota's head coach recalled, leaving out the name of the Big Ten Conference foe. "You hear that in the hallway and you're like, 'What?!' That's a want-to-win, almost a cocky way of thinking."

The root of such comments: a belief that Minnesota's program held a certain spot in the league's hierarchy, a perch above the likes of, say, Purdue, Illinois or Maryland — the Gophers' opponent in Saturday's Big Ten opener in College Park, Md.

In Fleck's second season, the Gophers have worked to eradicate perceptions like that inside the new Larson Football Performance Center. "I wanted to make sure that they were incredibly humble," Fleck said. "You need to be humble or you will be humbled."

At Big Ten media days in Chicago, Fleck shared how the biggest objective with this year's team is to ditch the "want-to-win" approach and replace it with a "refusing-to-lose" edge.

Through nonconference play, Fleck saw that switch flipped in a 21-14 win over Fresno State on Sept. 8, which required a late touchdown and game-saving interception. In his postgame comments, Fleck said the victory over a veteran team that won 10 games in 2017 could be a turning point for the program.

In the season opener, Fleck saw a calm within his players when the Gophers trailed New Mexico State 10-7 before pouring on 41 unanswered points in a 48-10 win on Aug. 30. The coach also liked the level of disappointment following last week's 26-3 win over Miami (Ohio). When he sensed that feeling in the locker room of a 3-0 team, he said, "You know you've got a special group of people."

The best chance yet to show these building blocks are in place will come against Maryland (2-1), a team that upset then-ranked Texas (2-1) in the opener but had a puzzling loss to Temple (1-2) last week.

The Gophers started 3-0 in nonconference play a year ago but lost their conference opener 31-24 to the Terrapins at TCF Bank Stadium. It proved to be a harbinger: Minnesota finished 2-7 in conference play and 5-7 overall, missing out on a bowl game for the first time since 2011.

"Last year's game was definitely a defining moment in our season," said Gophers senior safety Jacob Huff. "... I just think the start of the Big Ten last year, a lot of the young guys and the new guys didn't really understand how that was going to impact our team."

Fleck pointed to Maryland converting on a fourth-and-10 play during a first-quarter touchdown drive as one of many missed chances.

"The big thing is it was a very opportunistic game for us to be able to take advantage of, and we didn't," Fleck said. "There was a lot; that was kind of the story of a lot of our close games last year. It wasn't any different from a lot of those other ones in terms of we wanted to win, but we didn't refuse to lose."

After the loss to Maryland, the Gophers took a 17-16 lead over Purdue with 2:26 left in West Lafayette, Ind., but lost 31-17.

The Big Ten West seems more up for grabs than it did at the season's onset. Preseason favorite Wisconsin lost to unranked Brigham Young at home on Saturday, and Northwestern and Nebraska each have two losses. Purdue is 0-3.

Only Minnesota and Iowa are 3-0.

If Iowa beats Wisconsin and Minnesota beats Maryland this weekend, the biggest game of the young season will be between the Hawkeyes and Gophers Oct. 6 at TCF Bank Stadium — and each team has a bye week to prepare.

However, the Gophers' thinking about that instead of the Terrapins would be falling into their old habits.

"It's a one-game season," Fleck said. "No matter what, no matter where."