Less than 17 hours earlier, his Gophers football team had lost 55-31 at Illinois, giving up nearly 650 yards in the process. Coach P.J. Fleck made his Sunday morning radio appearance on WCCO-AM and reflected on the events in Champaign.
“Yesterday was completely unacceptable,” Fleck said. “There’s plenty of blame to go around, but most of that starts with me, period. We review our mistakes, correct them, then move on.”
On Sunday night, Fleck moved on from defensive coordinator Robb Smith, relieving him of his duties and naming defensive line coach Joe Rossi interim defensive coordinator for the remainder of the season. Smith was in the second year of a two-year, $1.4 million contract and was making $700,000 this season.
“These decisions are always difficult, especially when they involve a close friend and colleague,” Fleck said in a statement. “I want to thank Robb, Amy and their family for all the time and energy they spent helping our program grow. Robb is an elite man and will always be a dear friend of mine.”
The move came two weeks after Fleck said he had “100 percent faith in every single one of our coaches” following a 53-28 loss to previously winless Nebraska in which the Gophers gave up 659 yards. But circumstances changed. After Minnesota’s defense made just enough plays in a 38-31 home victory over Indiana on Oct. 26, it reverted to its porous form Saturday.
In falling to 4-5 overall and 1-5 in the Big Ten, the Gophers gave up a season high in points and 646 yards to a Fighting Illini team whose only victories entering Saturday were against 2-7 Kent State, 1-8 Rutgers and FCS-level Western Illinois.
If the way Illinois beat the Gophers seems familiar, it should. In the Big Ten opener, Maryland started a trend of hanging big plays on Minnesota’s defense, with touchdowns of 81, 54 and 64 yards among its five scores. Nebraska’s seven TDs featured strikes of 40, 59, 35 and 67 yards. And the Illini’s big day included TDs of 72, 72, 67, 30 and 77 yards.
Add it all up, and Smith’s defense allowed 31 TDs in Big Ten play — at an average of 34.7 yards per score. In conference play, the Gophers rank 13th in scoring defense (43.2 points allowed per game) and total defense (507.7 yards per game).
It’s no wonder Nebraska and Illinois, after winning the opening coin toss, chose to sic their offenses on the Gophers right away rather than deferring.
“[Saturday’s] game, I’ll reiterate, was unacceptable,” Fleck said Sunday during his radio show. “Our team understands that, and I made it very clear that that was unacceptable.”
So where do the Gophers go from here?
Fleck said the defense’s problem didn’t hinge on one area. Rather, scheme, coaching and personnel combined for the issues.
“We’ve got to look at every one of those categories,” he said. “Schematically, how can we make it even simpler for our guys so they don’t ever have any doubt about where they’re going? Coaching, how can we coach them, so they can do it better? Personnel, who are going to be the best people at this certain point?”
Rossi, 39, will try to do what Smith, the 43-year-old former Arkansas defensive coordinator, couldn’t.
A Pittsburgh native, Rossi was named defensive line coach in January after spending the 2017 as a quality control coach. He was an assistant at Rutgers from 2012 to ’15, including 2013 as interim defensive coordinator for the Scarlet Knights’ bowl game and the final two years as defensive coordinator. In 2014, Rutgers ranked 89th nationally in scoring defense (30.2 points allowed per game) and 100th in total defense (442.8) in an 8-5 season. In 2015, the Scarlet Knights were 104th in scoring defense (34.9) and 112th in total defense (462.0). Coach Kyle Flood and his staff were fired after a 4-8 season.
Rossi’s defense will face a challenge right away when Purdue visits TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday. The Boilermakers are averaging 35.8 points and 485.2 yards per Big Ten game, both second best in the conference.
“We’ve got a lot to fix,” Fleck said Sunday morning. “But it will be fixed.”