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Minnesota Football: Evaluating Year 3 of the P.J. Fleck era

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It was a historic season for the Golden Gophers

NCAA Football: Maryland at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Preseason Expectations

Grade: A

Back during Big Ten Media Days in July, Cleveland.com published their predicted finish for the Big Ten West, based on a survey of 34 voters, including one beat writer from each team:

1. Nebraska, 198 points (14 first-place votes)
2. Iowa, 194.5 points (14)
3. Wisconsin, 172.5 points (4)
4. Northwestern, 142.5 points (1)
5. Purdue, 110.5 points
6. Minnesota, 100 points (1)
7. Illinois, 34 points

And here are the actual standings from the end of the season:

1. Wisconsin (10-4 overall, 7-2 B1G)
1. Minnesota (11-2, 7-2)
3. Iowa (10-3, 6-3)
4. Illinois (6-7, 4-5)
5. Purdue (4-8, 3-6)
5. Nebraska (5-7, 3-6)
7. Northwestern (3-9, 1-8)

Well, they were right on target with Purdue at fifth. I’ll give them that. Everyone else, not so much. Expectations were low for Minnesota, specifically. Our readers here at The Daily Gopher were more bullish about the team based on the results of our preseason poll:

Graph of preseason predictions

Most of the survey participants expected a ceiling of eight or nine wins, although 10 wins came in a close third. Only 5% of those surveyed expected 11 or more wins.

From our staff predictions, only GoAUpher, Hipster Gopher, White Speed Receiver, and Ustreet predicted a regular season finish of 10-2 or better. But the individual game predictions — which can be charitably described as educated guesses — were interesting.

  • 7 out of 10 predicted a loss to Penn State (I did)
  • 6 out of 10 predicted a loss to Iowa (I did not)
  • 10 out of 10 predicted a win over Wisconsin (I did)

From a historical perspective, here is how some of head coach P.J. Fleck’s recent predecessors at Minnesota fared in their third years at the helm:

Jerry Kill: 8-5
Tim Brewster: 6-7
Glen Mason: 8-4
Jim Wacker: 3-8
John Gutekunst: 6-5

Fleck led the Gophers to their first 9-0 start to a season since 1905, and their first 11-win season in 116 years. The Gophers’ seven conference wins were the most in a single season in program history. The wins over Penn State and Auburn were the program’s first wins over a pair of AP Top 10 teams in the same season since 1956. Fleck was also named the Big Ten’s Hayes-Schembechler Coach of the Year at season’s end, as voted by his conference coaching peers.

I’d say he earned a passing grade.

Offense

Grade: A

Where do I start?

Under center, redshirt sophomore quarterback Tanner Morgan had one of the best seasons in program history, setting single-season school records for passing yards (3,253) and passing touchdowns (30). He certainly benefited from throwing to the best wide receiver tandem in the Big Ten, if not the country, in senior Tyler Johnson and sophomore Rashod Bateman. The pair were No. 1 and No. 2 in the Big Ten in receiving yards and were the first wide receivers from the same team to be unanimous first-team All-Big Ten selections in the same season.

Johnson set a new single-season school record for receiving yards (1,318) and became the program’s leader in career receiving yards (3,305) and receiving touchdowns (33). But he may not even have been the best wide receiver on the team. Prior to Johnson’s MVP performance against Auburn in the Outback Bowl, Bateman held the advantage in receiving yards, and finished the year with 60 receptions for 1,219 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns. He averaged 20.3 yards per reception, compared to Johnson, who averaged 15.3 yards per reception. Bateman was also named the Big Ten’s Richter-Howard Receiver of the Year.

Fifth-year senior running back Rodney Smith was able to bounce back from an ACL tear suffered a season ago to rush for 1,163 yards and eight touchdowns. He ranked third in the Big Ten in rushing yards and eighth in rushing touchdowns. Smith became the school’s career leader in all-purpose yards. Redshirt sophomore Mohamed Ibrahim made his presence known despite playing second fiddle to Smith, finishing the season with 604 rushing yards and eight touchdowns. He averaged 5.2 yards per carry. Shannon Brooks could never seem to stay healthy, but nevertheless contributed 408 rushing yards and two touchdowns in limited action.

On the offensive line, starting left guard Blaise Andries was named third-team All-Big Ten, and all four of the other starters were named All-Big Ten Honorable Mention.

Former offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca certainly saved his best for last before departing for Penn State ahead of the bowl game. The Gophers boasted a Top 25 scoring offense, averaging 34 points per game. Minnesota scored at least 28 points in their first nine games this season, which is something that had never been done in school history.

Defense

Grade: B+

In his first full year as defensive coordinator, Joe Rossi led a defense that was above average, but not quite elite, in my opinion. The Gophers ranked 36th nationally in scoring defense (22.4 points allowed per game), 23rd in rushing defense (122.4 rushing yards allowed per game), and ninth in passing defense (184.2 passing yards allowed per game). They may have saved their best performance for last, holding Auburn to 56 rushing yards in the Outback Bowl, which was well below the Tigers’ regular season average of 211 rushing yards per game.

No one on the defensive side of the ball had a better season than Antoine Winfield Jr., who was a first-team Associated Press All-American in addition to being named the Big Ten’s Tatum-Woodson Defensive Back of the Year and a unanimous selection for first-team All-Big Ten. He rebounded from back-to-back seasons in which he suffered season-ending injuries to lead the team in total tackles with 85, and led all Big Ten defensive backs (and ranked fourth nationally) with seven interceptions. No one else in the Big Ten recorded more than three interceptions.

Where the Gopher defense struggled was in consistently generating pressure on opposing quarterbacks, closing out a decade in which the program struggled mightily to recruit and develop game-changing talent at defensive end. Minnesota ranked 65th nationally and ninth in the Big Ten in sacks. That is a weakness that will need to be addressed moving forward.

Special Teams

Grade: C

Not great, Rob.

Special teams coach Rob Wenger had a rough year, as the Gophers’ kickoff unit was a consistent sore spot for the team, allowing an average of 21.5 yards per kickoff return. That average ranked 86th nationally and 12th in the Big Ten at season’s end. Part of the problem was that kickoff specialist Grant Ryerse could not consistently kick the ball through the end zone for a touchback.

Conversely, the punt unit was one of the best in the country, only allowing six punt returns for an average of 0.17 yards per return. That was the second best average in the country. Starting punter Jacob Herbers had an average senior season, averaging 37.2 net yards on 42 punts. For comparison, the best average nationally was 44.5 net yards per punt.

Kickoff returns and punt returns were nothing to write home about. The Gophers averaged 19.1 yards on 18 kickoff returns, and only averaged a meager 3.3 yards on 11 punt returns. The return game was not a difference maker for Minnesota in 2019.

True freshman kicker Michael Lantz was solid for the most part. He missed a couple games late in the year due to an unspecified leg injury, but finished the season 8-of-11 on field goals, with one blocked kick returned for a touchdown against Georgia Southern and misses from 33 and 51 yards. Lantz was also 47-of-49 on point after attempts.

Recruiting

Grade: B+

I recognize that people have high expectations for recruiting under Fleck, and he may be at least partially responsible for that himself, having cited a need to “recruit at a high level” on more than one occasion. But I think he has signed solid recruiting classes every year since he was hired, and the Class of 2020 is no exception. Is it overflowing with four- and five-star recruits? No. It ranked 33rd nationally and ninth in the Big Ten, according to 247 Sports. I’ll take that. I really think 2020 is when we’ll find out how well Fleck and co. have recruited — and how well they can recruit moving forward. Most of the starters on both sides of the ball will be Fleck recruits, and this next recruiting class should reap the benefits of the Gophers’ success on the field in 2019.

Poll

How would you grade Year 3 of the P.J. Fleck era?

This poll is closed

  • 89%
    A
    (1079 votes)
  • 9%
    B
    (115 votes)
  • 0%
    C
    (3 votes)
  • 0%
    D
    (1 vote)
  • 0%
    F
    (7 votes)
1205 votes total Vote Now