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Minnesota Football: Evaluating Year 6 of the P.J. Fleck era

The most disappointing season of P.J. Fleck’s tenure

Purdue v Minnesota Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Preseason Expectations

Grade: C

Back during Big Ten Media Days in July, Cleveland.com published their predicted finish for the Big Ten West, based on a survey of 36 voters, including one beat writer for each team:

1. Wisconsin, 246 points (31 first-place votes)
2. Iowa, 198 points (3)
3. Minnesota, 162 points (2)
4. Purdue, 153 points
5. Nebraska, 123 points
6. Illinois, 65 points
7. Northwestern, 61 points

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

1. Purdue (8-4 overall, 6-3 B1G)
2. Illinois (8-4, 5-4)
2. Iowa (7-5, 5-4)
2. Minnesota (8-4, 5-4)
5. Wisconsin (6-6, 4-5)
6. Nebraska (4-8, 3-6)
7. Northwestern (1-11, 0-9)

Wisconsin was the favorite to win the West, but the Badgers played poorly enough out of the gate that head coach Paul Chryst was fired midseason. Right behind them in the predicted standings were the Hawkeyes, who ended up fielding one of the worst offenses in the country. The top two perennial contenders in the West were as vulnerable as they’ve ever been, opening the door for Minnesota to take the division crown for themselves.

Unfortunately, Purdue and Illinois both leap-frogged Minnesota, who also couldn’t get over the hump against Iowa. October losses to the Boilermakers and the Illini effectively buried the Gophers’ chances of punching their ticket to Indianapolis.

Technically, by finishing in a tie for second place in the West, Minnesota did outperform their predicted finish from the preseason. But preseason expectations among Gopher fans were lofty, with 81% of respondents to our preseason poll predicting Minnesota to win nine or more games:

Yes, the Gophers ended up winning nine games after the bowl game, but as you can see above, the poll was limited to the regular season. So Minnesota fell short of expectations.

From our staff predictions, only mowe0018 predicted an 8-4 finish. Everyone else predicted a regular season record of 9-3 or better.

The individual game predictions that stand out:

  • 6 of 10 predicted a loss to Michigan State
  • 10 of 10 predicted a win over Purdue
  • 9 of 10 predicted a win over Illinois
  • 6 of 10 predicted a win over Iowa

Wins over Purdue and Illinois seemed like virtual locks and Michigan State and Iowa were essentially coin flip games, and Minnesota split those two matchups.

I recognize there will be fans who believe this season deserves an F grade for failing to capitalize on a golden opportunity to win the West, but I’m not going to be that harsh. It was a good season, just not the great one it could have been. The Gophers have now won nine games in three of the last four years, a stretch of success the program has not seen since 1900-1905. It’s understandable to be disappointed about Minnesota not winning the division, but I wouldn’t take another nine-win season for granted.

Offense

Grade: C

Thank God for Mohamed Ibrahim.

Thanks to their star running back, the Gophers ranked in the Top 15 nationally in rushing offense this season, averaging 218.2 rushing yards per game. Ibrahim was a unanimous first-team All-Big Ten selection, rushing for a school-record 1,665 yards and a school-record 20 rushing touchdowns. He now owns the all-time program records for career rushing yards (4,668) and career rushing touchdowns (53). This season also saw Ibrahim extend his streak of consecutive games with at least 100 rushing yards to 19, dating back to 2019.

To understand how valuable Ibrahim was to the Gopher offense, you need look no further than the Purdue game, which saw him sidelined with an ankle injury.

Without him, the Minnesota offense came to a screeching halt. Against the Boilermakers, the Gophers were limited to 47 rushing yards and an average of 1.8 yards per carry. Tanner Morgan passed for 257 yards but only completed 54.5% of his passes and threw three interceptions as Minnesota was limited to 10 points in their first loss of the season.

The offense was supposed to be more balanced and dynamic this season, bolstered by the reunion between Morgan and his former offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Kirk Ciarrocca. But the Gophers’ passing game never got off the ground, averaging 182.2 passing yards per game to rank 116th nationally in passing offense.

It didn’t help that top target Chris Autman-Bell was lost to a season-ending knee injury in Week 3. For at least one week, the rest of the wide receiver room looked poised to step up in his absence, hauling in 23 receptions for 268 receiving yards and three touchdowns against Michigan State. But they were unable to maintain that level of the play through the rest of the season.

Morgan, in his final opportunity to regain his 2019 form, also struggled, before missing four of Minnesota’s final six regular season games due to multiple concussions.

Redshirt freshman quarterback Athan Kalikmanis was able to breathe life into the passing game late in the year, but not with enough consistency to significantly impact the season grade.

Defense

Grade: A-

There is a reason Joe Rossi was signed to a new three-year contract in December.

For the second straight year, the Gophers were elite on defense, finishing 18th nationally in rushing defense (109 rushing yards allowed per game), 17th in passing defense (186.1 passing yards allowed per game), and 5th in scoring defense (13.8 points allowed per game).

The veteran secondary was the strength of the defense, led a pair of veteran safeties in Jordan Howden and Tyler Nubin, the latter of whom earned second-team All-Big Ten honors after recording 55 total tackles, two tackles for loss, three pass break-ups, and a team-high three interceptions. The biggest surprise of the secondary was fifth-year senior Terell Smith, who earned the starting spot at cornerback opposite Justin Walley and quietly had a strong season.

Mike linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin led the team in total tackles with 88, but redshirt sophomore Cody Lindenberg emerged as the present and future at linebacker. He started the final six games of the season at the will linebacker position, finishing with 71 total tackles, four tackles for loss, one sack, one quarterback hurry, and two pass break-ups.

The glaring weakness of the Gopher defense was the pass rush. Danny Striggow, Thomas Rush’s primary back-up at rush end, led the team with 3.5 sacks. A year ago, Boye Mafe led the team with seven sacks, followed closely by Rush with 5.5 sacks. The Minnesota defensive line lack a difference maker on the edge and struggled to consistently pressure the quarterback as a result, often needing to dial up a blitz to turn up the heat in the pocket.

Redshirt sophomore defensive end Jah Joyner did show promise in his first season as part of the defensive line rotation, recording a team-high six quarterback hurries.

Special Teams

Grade: B-

According to Football Outsiders, Minnesota ranked 56th nationally in special teams this season based on their Fremeau Efficiency Index rating, which combines kickoff return, kickoff, punt return, punt, and field goal efficiency into one overall rating.

Placekicker Matthew Trickett improved from a season ago when he was 17-of-25 (68%) on field goal attempts. This year he was 15-of-18 (83.3%), though his missed 28-yard field goal attempt against Purdue and his missed 34-yard field goal attempt against Iowa both loomed large in those losses. That said, the Gophers also would not have beaten Nebraska if not for Trickett’s 47-yard and 49-yard field goals in the second half. He was solid, for the most part.

The Gophers ranked 90th in kickoff return coverage, allowing an average of 21.5 yards per kickoff return. But that average is based on only nine kickoff returns. Only Texas A&M had fewer opposing kickoff returns this season. Kickoff specialist Dragan Kesich did his best to keep the ball out of the hands of opposing kick returners, as 59 of his 71 kickoffs went for touchbacks.

The kickoff return unit actually showed signs of life this season with Quentin Redding as the returner. The Gophers ranked 11th nationally in kickoff returns, averaging 23.6 yards per return on 23 returns. Redding had a 92-yard kickoff return against Illinois and a 72-yard return in the Pinstripe Bowl, both of which created scoring opportunities that led to touchdowns.

The punt and punt return units did nothing to help Minnesota. Punter Mark Crawford averaged 40.61 yards per punt on 46 punts, which ranked 13th in the Big Ten. The punt return game was almost non-existent, ranking 90th nationally with an average of six yards per return on 13 returns.

Poll

How would you grade Year 6 of the P.J. Fleck era?

  • 3%
    A
    (34 votes)
  • 55%
    B
    (569 votes)
  • 32%
    C
    (338 votes)
  • 5%
    D
    (60 votes)
  • 2%
    F
    (24 votes)
1025 votes total Vote Now