You hear it during training camp, in news conferences and pretty much any time P.J. Fleck talks football.
“The ball is the program,’’ the Gophers football coach says, stressing how important it is to avoid turnovers.
During his weekly news conference Tuesday, Fleck put a new twist on the catchphrase.
“The ball,’’ he said, “has not been the program.’’
Indeed, it hasn’t.
Entering Saturday’s regular-season finale at Wisconsin, the Gophers have a minus-9 turnover margin, which ranks 13th among the 14 Big Ten teams, ahead of only 1-10 Rutgers. But when you factor in conference games only, the Gophers sit in the Big Ten basement with a minus-11 mark, three turnovers more than any other team.
“We’re minus-11 in the turnover battle. We’re lucky we’re 5-6,’’ said Fleck, whose team takes a 2-6 Big Ten mark into the regular-season finale on Saturday at Wisconsin (7-4, 5-3). “We’ve got to be able to fix that.’’
The latest example of what needs to be fixed came in last week’s 24-14 loss to No. 24 Northwestern. The Gophers committed three turnovers — two interceptions by redshirt freshman quarterback Tanner Morgan and a lost fumble by him while being sacked. The Wildcats did not commit a turnover.
Two of Morgan’s three turnovers against Northwestern can’t be pinned solely on the QB. His first interception came on a pass that caromed off a couple of Wildcats before linebacker Nate Hall made a diving pick.
The fumble he lost happened when he was hit almost immediately on a pass rush.
Saturday’s game marked the third Big Ten game this season that the Gophers had a minus-3 turnover margin, joining losses at Maryland and Ohio State. They also were minus-2 at home against Iowa and lost.
Their two conference wins were against Indiana, when they were minus-1, and Purdue, when they were even.
Nationally, the Gophers are tied for 121st of 130 FBS teams in turnover margin.
“To be able to value the ball, you have to know what it’s like to not value the ball,’’ Fleck said. “We have a lot of guys who are really finding out what not valuing the ball is.’’
That can happen with inexperience. The Gophers’ top two passers, top two rushers and three of their four leading receivers are either true freshmen or redshirt freshmen. Morgan has thrown five interceptions in Big Ten play, while true freshman Zack Annexstad, who started the first four conference games before being replaced by Morgan after halftime at Nebraska, has thrown seven.
The Gophers also have lost eight of their 13 fumbles in Big Ten play. And tipped passes that could have been caught by Gophers have ended up interceptions.
“We have to go win the 50-50 balls,’’ Fleck said. “We need to make it 90-10” in the Gophers’ favor.
Avoiding turnovers would give the Gophers a boost in their effort to beat Wisconsin on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium.
“They’re self-inflicted wounds,’’ he said. “When you look at self-inflicted wounds, are they fixable or are they not? They are.’’