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Minnesota Football: Evaluating Year 5 of the P.J. Fleck era

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The Gophers weathered a couple bizarre losses to salvage a solid season

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 30 Minnesota at Northwestern Photo by Daniel Bartel/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Preseason Expectations

Grade: B+

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 for each team:

1. Wisconsin, 233 points (29 first-place votes)
2. Iowa, 202 points (5)
3. Northwestern, 160 points
4. Minnesota, 146 points
5. Nebraska, 91.5 points
6. Purdue, 72.5 points
7. Illinois, 47 points

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

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

Clearly voters overestimated Northwestern and Nebraska and underestimated Minnesota and Purdue. Since the Big Ten split into divisions in 2011, the Gophers have only finished second or better in their division three times. The 2014 team, led by Jerry Kill, finished in a second-place tie with Nebraska. Fleck led the program to a first-place tie with Wisconsin in 2019 and most recently secured a second-place tie with Wisconsin and Purdue in 2021.

Minnesota has won six or more conference games only seven times in program history, and only twice since 1973. Prior to 2021, the last time was 2019, so Fleck is responsible for both.

Our readers here at The Daily Gopher were right on the money with their predictions:

31% of respondents predicted eight regular season wins.

From our staff predictions, gopherguy05 and I both predicted an 8-4 finish. Everyone else predicted a regular season record of 9-3 or better.

The individual game predictions that stand out:

  • 8 of 10 predicted a loss to Ohio State
  • 10 of 10 predicted a win over Bowling Green
  • 10 of 10 predicted a win over Illinois
  • 5 of 10 predicted a loss to Iowa
  • 6 of 10 predicted a win over Indiana
  • 6 of 10 predicted a win over Wisconsin

Most predicted a loss to Ohio State, the Iowa game was basically a coin flip, no one expected losses to Bowling Green or Illinois, and only a slight majority were convinced that Minnesota would prevail in their final two games against Indiana and Wisconsin. The Gophers finished 2-2 in the month of November, but I don’t know if anyone could have predicted that Minnesota would lose to Illinois and beat Wisconsin.

Historically, Fleck’s winning percentage (.603) thus far is the best by a Minnesota coach through his first five seasons since Bernie Bierman’s second tenure as head coach (.644).

Offense

Grade: C-

Offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. was fired for a reason.

But first, credit where credit is due. The Gophers weathered a storm at running back, first losing Mohamed Ibrahim to a torn Achilles’ tendon in the season opener and then seeing Trey Potts rushed to the hospital by ambulance during the Purdue game due to an undisclosed ailment that sidelined him for the rest of the year. Cam Wiley also opted to enter the transfer portal midseason and Bryce Williams suffered his own season-ending injury against Northwestern.

Minnesota was able to keep the ground game rolling in large part due to their veteran offensive line. Conner Olson, Sam Schlueter, Blaise Andries, Daniel Faalele, and John Michael Schmitz didn’t miss a game all season, paving the way for a rushing attack that averaged 198.1 yards per game. Redshirt freshman Ky Thomas and true freshman Mar’Keise “Bucky” Irving also deserve credit for answering the call when they suddenly found themselves atop the depth chart. Thomas finished the season with 824 rushing yards and six touchdowns, and Irving rushed for 699 yards and four touchdowns. And neither of them started a game until midseason.

But enough about the ground game. The air attack (or lack thereof) is what cost Sanford his job. The only teams that attempted fewer passes than Minnesota this season were the service academies: Navy, Army, and Air Force. The Gophers ranked 119th nationally in passing offense, averaging 162 passing yards per game. Tanner Morgan, in his fourth year as the starting quarterback, barely threw more touchdowns (10) than interceptions (9). And the receiving corps struggled to find a consistent playmaker outside of Chris Autman-Bell, who himself would often disappear at times. He had two or fewer receptions in six games this season.

Defense

Grade: A

We don’t talk enough about defensive coordinator Joe Rossi.

This season was his best work yet, as the Gopher finished 7th nationally in rushing defense (97.5 rushing yards allowed per game), 9th in passing defense (181.2 passing yards allowed per game), and 9th in scoring defense (17.3 points allowed per game). That is even more impressive when you recall how dreadful the defense was in 2020, ranking 102nd in rushing defense (207.1 rushing yards allowed per game) and 70th in scoring defense (30.1 points allowed per game).

The Gophers landed a pair of impact players from the transfer portal. Abilene Christian linebacker Jack Gibbens became the team’s leading tackler and helped Mariano Sori-Marin settle into his position after he struggled trying to do too much a season ago. Clemson defensive tackle Nyles Pinckney anchored the deepest defensive line that Minnesota has had in years. Rush end Boye Mafe led the team with 10 tackles for loss and seven sacks, followed closely by Thomas Rush with 7.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks. De’Angelo “Trill” Carter continued his emergence at defensive tackle alongside Pinckney, recording five tackles for loss, one sack, and three quarterback hurries.

In the secondary, true freshman cornerback Justin Walley seized a starting spot midway through the season to solidify a veteran unit led by seniors Coney Durr, Justus Harris, and Jordan Howden. He actually led the team with seven pass break-ups, in addition to one interception. Tyler Nubin finished third on the team in tackles (52) and first in interceptions (3).

This was easily the best defense Gophers fans have seen in years.

Special Teams

Grade: B

I’m not sure what happened to Matthew Trickett since transferring from Kent State. In three seasons with the Golden Flashes, he was 47-of-57 (82.5%) on field goals. In one season at Minnesota, Trickett was 17-of-25 (68%). His misses were all over the place, too. He was 4-of-6 between 20-29 yards, 8-of-9 between 30-39 yards, 4-of-6 between 40-49 yards, and 1-of-4 over 50 yards. The Gophers desperately need consistency at placekicker.

With Dragan Kesich handling kickoffs for the second consecutive season, Minnesota was again one of the best teams in the country in kickoff return coverage, ranking 12th nationally after allowing an average of 16.67 yards per kickoff return. The Gophers ranked fourth nationally in punt return defense, allowing an average of 2.33 yards per return. Punter Mark Crawford averaged 41.72 yards per punt, dropping 24 of his 47 punts inside the 20-yard line.

Conversely, Minnesota had virtually no return game, which has become something of a staple under Fleck. The Gophers fair catch pretty much everything, ranking 120th nationally in kickoff returns (16.06 yards per kickoff return) and 52nd in punt returns (9.07 yards per punt return).

Recruiting

Grade: B

Solid but not spectacular would be an apt description of Fleck’s recruiting at Minnesota thus far and this latest recruiting class was no exception. The class finished 10th in the Big Ten and 42nd nationally, with a pair of four-star defensive linemen headlining the signees. It was a smaller class than usual due to the current roster crunch, but 10 of the 18 signees held scholarship offers from multiple Power 5 programs. I understand if people have higher expectations for Fleck on the recruiting trail, but I’m content to trust his evals as long as the team continues to produce on the field.

Poll

How would you grade Year 5 of the P.J. Fleck era?

This poll is closed

  • 17%
    A
    (180 votes)
  • 75%
    B
    (777 votes)
  • 5%
    C
    (56 votes)
  • 0%
    D
    (4 votes)
  • 0%
    F
    (7 votes)
1024 votes total Vote Now