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Minnesota Football: Evaluating Year 7 of the P.J. Fleck era

The worst report card of P.J. Fleck’s tenure thus far

Minnesota v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

Preseason Expectations

Grade: F

Back during Big Ten Media Days in July, Cleveland.com published their predicted finish for the Big Ten West, based on a survey of 37 voters, including one beat writer for each team:

1. Wisconsin, 233 points (20 first-place votes)
2. Iowa, 232 points (16)
3. Minnesota, 176 points (1)
4. Illinois, 152 points
5. Nebraska, 116 points
6. Purdue, 89 points
7. Northwestern, 38 points

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

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

The Big Ten West (R.I.P.) saved its worst for last. Yet the Gophers made a case for being the worst of the worst, going 2-4 against their division opponents, including two losses to teams that also finished below .500. Iowa may have finished comfortably in first place, but every game within the division was a close contest. The Hawkeyes’ average margin of victory in five wins over Big Ten West opponents was 4.6 points. The fact that they lost to Minnesota is further proof that they walked the razor’s edge to the Big Ten Championship in Indianapolis.

The Big Ten West was won by the team most able to get out of its own way. The Gophers spent most of the season stumbling over themselves. The result was essentially a last-place finish.

Minnesota also fell well short of our readers’ expectations. Looking at a schedule that included road trips to North Carolina and Ohio State and a date with Michigan, 71% of respondents to our preseason poll predicted Minnesota would win eight or more games:

From our staff predictions, the lowest predicted finish was 7-5, courtesy of gopherguy05 and zipsofakron. Everyone else predicted a regular season record of 8-4 or better.

The individual game predictions that stand out:

  • 9 of 9 predicted a win over Northwestern
  • 5 of 9 predicted a win over Iowa
  • 6 of 9 predicted a win over Illinois
  • 9 of 9 predicted a win over Purdue
  • 8 of 9 predicted a win over Wisconsin

Wins over Northwestern and Purdue seemed like virtual locks and there was a high degree of confidence in a third straight win over Wisconsin. Minnesota lost all three games.

By all measures, this season was a failure.

Offense

Grade: D+

Even with offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca departing for Rutgers, expectations were high for the Gophers’ passing game entering this season. Mohamed Ibrahim was gone, depriving the offense of the workhorse it had long relied upon to move the ball. Minnesota reached into the transfer portal and pulled out transfer wide receivers Corey Crooms Jr. and Elijah Spencer to bolster their receiving corps. Athan Kaliakmanis, in his first full season as the starting signal caller, was touted as the most physically gifted quarterback the program had seen in years.

Best laid plans, right?

Minnesota averaged 143.4 passing yards per game, which ranked 11th in the Big Ten and 123rd nationally. Crooms and Spencer combined for 37 receptions, 441 receiving yards, and three touchdowns. Kaliakmanis entered the transfer portal at season’s end after completing 53.1% of his passes and throwing for 1,838 passing yards, 14 touchdowns, and nine interceptions. The lone bright spot of the passing was the emergence of wide receiver Daniel Jackson, who earned All-Big Ten honors after hauling in 59 receptions for 831 receiving yards and eight touchdowns.

Oh, and then there was tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford. He spurned the NFL to return for his final year of eligibility, but seemed to be a shadow of his former self for most of the season. Spann-Ford finished with a paltry 25 receptions for 239 receiving yards and two touchdowns.

The ground game was more successful, aided by true freshman running back Darius Taylor bursting onto the scene. He missed six games due to injury, but managed to rack up 799 rushing yards and five touchdowns when he did see the field. Injuries to Bryce Williams and Zach Evans ate into the Gophers’ depth at running back, and Western Michigan transfer Sean Tyler effectively sidelined himself by repeatedly fumbling the football. By season’s end, former walk-on Jordan Nubin was the primary ball carrier and the drop-off from Taylor to Nubin was noticeable.

In trying to identify the issues on offense, there are a lot of fingers to be pointed. Kaliakmanis failed to live up to expectations, but how much of that is on him and how much is on first-year quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator Greg Harbaugh Jr.? Drops continue to be an issue at wide receiver. The tight end position took a step back this season. Offensive line play was mediocre for the most part, with John Michael Schmitz sorely missed at center.

But I will point out one thing: Minnesota scored 34 points against Northwestern, 26 against Illinois, and 30 against Purdue. All three games were losses. Knowing nothing else, wouldn’t you think those point totals would be enough to win? Which brings us to...

Defense

Grade: C-

Coming into the season, the Gophers needed to replace Jordan Howden at strong safety, Terell Smith at cornerback, Michael “Flip” Dixon at slot corner, Mariano Sori-Marin at linebacker, De’Angelo Carter at defensive tackle, and Thomas Rush at rush end. So only fiver returning starters. Confidence in the defense’s ability to reload stemmed in large part from knowing defensive coordinator Joe Rossi was at the helm, having led Minnesota to Top 10 finishes in both total defense and scoring defense each of the last two seasons.

The absence of top linebacker Cody Lindenberg through the first seven games due to injury made things difficult. That forced the Gophers to rely on third-year linebacker but first-year starter Devon Williams and redshirt freshman Maverick Baranowski in the middle of their defense. The lack of depth at linebacker — which was not helped by Western Michigan transfer Ryan Selig, who was banged up and largely ineffective — was a factor all season long before coming to a head in the Purdue game. Baranowski left the game with an injury in the first quarter, forcing true freshman Matt Kingsbury into game action. The Boilermakers wasted no time in attacking the middle of the field and proceeded to rack up 49 points and 604 yards of total offense.

In the secondary, free safety Tyler Nubin earned All-Big Ten honors and led the team with five interceptions, bringing his career total to a school-record 13 interceptions. Southeastern transfer Jack Henderson was a bright spot at slot corner and he ended up leading the team in total tackles with 59. But Darius Green and Aidan Gousby proved to be liabilities in pass coverage at strong safety. The pass defense in general was porous at times, allowing 414 passing yards to North Carolina, 400 to Northwestern, 297 to Illinois, and 251 to Purdue.

The defensive line was much improved for most of the season before fading down the stretch. Under new defensive line coach Winston DeLattiboudere, Minnesota registered 56 tackles for loss, 26 sacks, and 31 quarterback hurries after only recording 47 tackles for loss, 19 sacks, and 18 quarterback hurries a season ago. Defensive end Jah Joyner broke out with 7.5 sacks, and rush end Danny Striggow was not far behind with six of his own.

Once the dust settled, the Gopher defense was mediocre to bad, statistically:

  • 149.1 rushing yards allowed per game (10th in the Big Ten, 62nd nationally)
  • 219.3 passing yards allowed per game (10th, 59th)
  • 26.7 points allowed per game (10th, T-67th)

Special Teams

Grade: B

Dragan Kesich was named the Big Ten’s Bakken-Andersen Kicker of the Year. He finished 23-of-27 on field goal attempts and 27-of-27 on point-after attempts. He tied for ninth in the nation in both field goals made and field goals attempted, and tied for 22nd in field goal percentage (85.2%). His 53 touchbacks on kickoffs also ranked 18th nationally. Kesich’s season was highlighted by a game-winning 47-yard field goal as time expired against Nebraska and a 12-10 upset of the Iowa Hawkeyes in which he was responsible for all 12 of the Gophers’ points.

Punter Mark Crawford was middle of the pack amongst his Big Ten brethren. He punted 65 times this season and averaged 42.5 yards per punt, which ranked him eighth in the Big Ten and tied for 62nd nationally. His average of 40.4 net yards per punt ranked seventh in the Big Ten. 25 of Crawford’s punts were downed inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.

The return game continues to be a non-factor for Minnesota. The stats are a bit deceiving, as the Gophers ranked 21st nationally averaging 11.75 yards per punt return, but they only returned eight punts all season. Quentin Redding was a fair catch machine. Minnesota ranked nearly dead last in kickoff returns, averaging 14.48 yards per kickoff return to rank 128th nationally.

If not for Kesich, I’d be giving this unit a C grade at best.

Poll

How would you grade Year 7 of the P.J. Fleck era?

This poll is closed

  • 1%
    A
    (6 votes)
  • 1%
    B
    (9 votes)
  • 16%
    C
    (77 votes)
  • 58%
    D
    (275 votes)
  • 22%
    F
    (105 votes)
472 votes total Vote Now