It feels like we’re at one of the lowest points of the P.J. Fleck era.
The 45 points the Penn State Nittany Lions scored Saturday night against the Minnesota Golden Gophers are the most that a Fleck team has allowed since Maryland put up that same number of points back in 2020. The week prior to that 45-44 overtime loss to the Terrapins, the Gophers gave up 49 points to Michigan in their season opener.
The 2020 season was definitely a low point, but there was an explanation for that low point that I could live with. The COVID pandemic cost them an entire offseason. Every program in the country was in the same situation, but Minnesota lost much-needed time to coach up the inexperienced players who would be stepping into the seven vacated starting spots on defense from the previous year. The Gophers also had a new offensive coordinator — which in hindsight we can now say for certain was a bad hire — and no offseason for him to work with his new offense.
This season, Minnesota brought back offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, the architect of the Gophers’ dynamic 2019 offense, to reignite an offense led by the “Encore Four”: Sixth-year quarterback Tanner Morgan, sixth-year running back Mohamed Ibrahim, sixth-year wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell, and sixth-year center John Michael Schmitz.
Eight weeks into the season, the “Encore Four” have been battered and bruised.
Autman-Bell has been lost for the season due to a knee injury, leaving behind a barren wide receiver corps that calls into question the program’s recruiting and development at that position. Ibrahim sat out the Purdue game with an ankle injury, as the Gophers were held to their lowest single-game rushing total since 2015. Morgan and the Gophers’ passing game as a whole have been a disaster in the month of October, culminating in the starting signal caller suffering a concussion against Illinois and sitting out the Penn State game. And Schmitz has anchored an offensive line that can’t run or pass block with any consistency.
On the other side of the ball, Fleck was able to retain defensive coordinator Joe Rossi, who was a finalist for the defensive coordinator position at Notre Dame before head coach Marcus Freeman opted to hire Al Golden. Rossi’s unit looked elite through the first four games of the season before stumbling against Purdue, and the defense has looked worse each week.
Saturday night, the Nittany Lions rolled up 479 total yards of offense and 45 points, and the Gophers allowed nine completions of 15 yards or more and seven rushes of 10 yards or more. The most humiliating play of the game came late in the third quarter. Cornerback Ryan Stapp had been inserted for Justin Walley and lined up on the wrong side of the field, leaving Penn State wide receiver Mitchell Tinsley uncovered and wide open for a 20-yard touchdown pass.
Minnesota has now lost three straight, averaging 13.6 points per game on offense over that stretch while allowing 30.3 points per game on defense.
So what is the explanation?
You can’t point to youth and inexperience. Against Penn State, eight starters on offense and nine starters on defense were upperclassmen. You can’t blame a Mike Sanford Jr. for the issues on offense or a Robb Smith for the issues on defense. The obvious answer is that it is either talent or coaching or a combination of both. And that’s a real problem in Year 6.
I mean, look ahead to Year 7 for a moment: Morgan and Ibrahim will both be gone. Autman-Bell is unlikely to return. All three starters on the interior of the offensive line will be gone, including Schmitz. Brevyn Spann-Ford could forego his final year of eligibility and take his chances in the NFL. Just based on personnel, is there reason to believe the offense will be better?
But there are at least five games left in Year 6. The ending of this season has yet to be written, though I have to admit I don’t have much faith in the author right now. Seeing this team get beat up three games in a row — and get embarrassed on national television by Penn State — has taken a toll. As it stands, I think we may need to have a difficult conversation about Fleck at season’s end. Until then, I think I’ll keep my oar in the boat and hope the tide changes.