The last time the Minnesota Golden Gophers lost to the Illinois Fighting Illini, head football coach P.J. Fleck realized that a change needed to be made.
The 2018 version of the Illini rolled up 430 rushing yards on the 2018 version of the Gophers, averaging 12.3 yards per carry en route to a 55-31 blowout victory. The next day, Fleck announced that he was parting ways with second-year defensive coordinator Robb Smith and promoting defensive line coach Joe Rossi to interim coordinator.
The turnaround was swift. The following week, Rossi led the Minnesota defense to their best performance of the season, holding Purdue to a season-low 10 points and 233 yards of offense in a 41-10 win. Fleck’s record with Smith as his defensive coordinator was 9-13, including a 3-12 conference record. With Rossi at the helm, Fleck is 23-10 overall and 14-8 in Big Ten play.
Clearly Fleck made a determination that the problem on defense wasn’t a lack of talent but rather a deficiency in coaching, and he was right. The results speak for themselves.
He’s in a similar position now but on the other side of the ball.
Consider the state of the Gophers’ offense entering this season: Tanner Morgan in his fourth year as the starting quarterback, having broken school records for passing yards and passing touchdowns in his second year. The reigning Big Ten Running Back of the Year in Mohamed Ibrahim, who would be operating behind one of the most experienced offensive lines in the country. The five starters entered the year with a combined 140 career starts between them. Star wide receiver Rashod Bateman was gone to the NFL, but senior Chris Autman-Bell was back to lead a young but talented receiving corps.
That should have been a recipe for success. Yet the Gophers currently rank 122nd nationally in passing offense and 83rd in scoring offense, and have been held to 10 points or fewer twice this season, once by Bowling Green and then later by Illinois.
Of course, the season didn’t follow the script from the start, as Ibrahim was lost to a season-ending injury in the opener. His successor, Trey Potts, followed suit four games later. Even with season-ending injuries to their top two backs, the Gophers continued to churn out yards on the grind. That is, until the Illini held them to fewer than 100 yards rushing for the first time all season, exposing Minnesota’s offense as a one-dimensional paper tiger.
With a veteran quarterback, a veteran offensive line, and talent at wide receiver, the Gophers should have been able to mount an effective enough passing attack to have success on offense. But their veteran quarterback was 15-of-27 for 180 passing yards and two interceptions, their veteran offensive line surrendered six sacks, and their talented wide receivers were MIA.
It was the same story against Bowling Green. Tanner Morgan was 5-of-13 for 59 passing yards and two interceptions. Against the Falcons, Chris Autman-Bell recorded one reception for nine yards. He was also limited to a single reception against the Illini.
Even with the loss to Bowling Green, the stage was set for a November to remember. The Gophers were alone atop the Big Ten West standings and controlled their own destiny, with games against Iowa and Wisconsin ahead. They still control their own destiny, but the hill to climb looks much steeper the morning after a 14-6 loss to Illinois.
With their season on the brink of collapse, it’s difficult not to feel that an opportunity has already been squandered. Everyone came into this season with questions about the defense, but Rossi has produced one of the best defenses in the country, ranking 14th nationally in rushing defense, 28th in passing defense, and 15th in scoring defense. Imagine how good this team could have been if that offense had lived up to its potential, and the responsibility for that failure falls squarely on the shoulders of offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr.
We know what Tanner Morgan can do. Fleck believes they have future NFL offensive linemen up front. He and wide receivers coach Matt Simon have a reputation for developing elite receivers. If the talent and potential is there, who’s to blame for not making the most of it?
We can only hope Fleck figures it out sooner rather than later.