The Gophers didn’t enter this season with big expectations, but this was more than P.J. Fleck could stomach. A 3-0 run through a home-only nonconference schedule had been followed by a 1-4 start in Big Ten play.
It wasn’t just that the Gophers had lost to Maryland, Iowa, Ohio State and a bad Nebraska team, it was the manner in which defeat took place. A combined 173 points against (43.3 per game) and then 31 given up in a home victory against Indiana in which Minnesota had led 31-9 entering the fourth quarter.
But even that defensive ineptitude couldn’t have prepared Fleck for what happened on Nov. 3 in Champaign, Ill. Facing an Illinois team that also was 1-4 in the conference, the Gophers’ defense embarrassed itself.
Minnesota looked helpless against the run as Reggie Corbin rushed for 213 yards and two touchdowns that both came on runs of more than 70 yards. By the time it was done, Illinois had rushed for 430 yards, had 646 yards of total offense and was the proud owner of a 55-31 victory.
Anyone who has watched Fleck conduct himself since he set foot on the University of Minnesota campus knows that he prides himself in trying to focus on the positives. However, he also is a football coach with an obligation to try to win games and his defense was continually costing his team the opportunity to do so.
The day after the debacle in Illinois, Fleck fired defensive coordinator Robb Smith and promoted defensive line coach Joe Rossi to interim coordinator. Rossi inherited a group that was giving up more than 500 yards of offense per game in the Big Ten.
How much could he help solve the problem?
The answer was immediate and came during a 41-10 victory over Purdue the following Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium. The Gophers defense gave up only 233 yards of offense to the Boilermakers and looked like a completely different unit. Minnesota won three of four games with Rossi in charge of the defense, including ending its 14-year losing streak to Wisconsin and following that up 34-10 victory over Georgia Tech on Wednesday in the Quick Lane Bowl.
The victory over Georgia Tech and its triple-option run attack — the Yellow Jackets had averaged 334.9 rushing yards per game, but were held to 206 by Minnesota — was the first since Rossi had the interim tag removed from his title after the win in Madison.
What made the victory impressive was the fact that the Gophers offense and defense both operated at a high level, something that never happened in the first five games of the conference season with Smith in charge of the defense.
The victories over Wisconsin and Georgia Tech should establish a blue print for Minnesota heading into next season. It’s also why 2019 should begin with real expectations, as Fleck enters his third season as the Gophers’ coach. It doesn’t hurt that Ohio State and Michigan both aren’t on the Gophers’ schedule.
Fleck is a good recruiter and knows how to coach offense. He is going to need to settle on a quarterback — Tanner Morgan would seem to have the inside track — but the Gophers should be able to score points in 2019. They scored more than 30 points in six of their final nine games and had 28 against Nebraska.
The concern through the Illinois game was whether anybody on Fleck’s staff, including the coach, knew how to come up with a scheme to keep opponents out of the end zone. What was maddening from the outside, and had to be from Fleck’s chair as well, was how bad the defense looked. This had nothing to do with youth and certainly every player couldn’t have been that bad. This had to do with scheme and fundamentals, such as being in the right gap and tackling.
Rossi fixed those issues in a week and should have an even better group to work with next season. Linebacker Blake Cashman will be gone, but Thomas Barber and Carter Coughlin will provide experience at that position and the secondary should be much improved.
That unit will be helped by the return of standout defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr., who suffered a season-ending foot injury in the Big Ten opener. Winfield could be one of the top defensive players in the conference if he can remain healthy. Fleck also has added a few defensive tackles in this recruiting class who should step in and play.
Of course, trying to sell any positives regarding the defense would have been next to impossible if the ineptitude displayed under Smith had been allowed to continue. But with Rossi running the show it appears the Gophers defense has gone from laughing stock to legit.
That means it’s fair to expect that in Fleck’s third season his team will be spending the holidays playing a bowl game in a much warmer climate than Detroit.