When the Gophers travel to Ann Arbor for Saturday’s battle for the Little Brown Jug vs. Michigan, coach P.J. Fleck will experience a first.
“I’ve never been to the Big House,” Fleck said, referring the 107,601-seat Michigan Stadium, a venue where the Gophers have won only three times in the past 50 years.
Fleck and the Gophers (4-4, 1-4 Big Ten) will try to change that trend against the Wolverines (6-2, 3-2), who are trying to get back into contention in the East Division after losses to No. 24 Michigan State and No. 7 Penn State. In their last visit to Michigan, the Gophers dominated the Wolverines 30-14, a result that helped seal coach Brady Hoke’s fate during a 5-7 season.
Hoke’s firing led to the hiring of Jim Harbaugh, who has rejuvenated the program but still is seeking a division or conference championship. Fleck hasn’t coached against Harbaugh, but he appreciates what the former Stanford and San Francisco 49ers coach has accomplished.
“I have an enormous amount of respect for that man,” Fleck said. “He has given us young coaches — I guess you couldn’t say advice, but a way to go through your coaching profession [as being] yourself. … One thing about Jim Harbaugh is he’s himself.”
Harbaugh’s use of satellite camps, briefly banned in 2016 and since limited by the NCAA, and taking his team to Italy last spring raised eyebrows. Fleck, however, gives him points for innovation.
“That he has had success everywhere he has been just because he’s so proactive,” Fleck said. “He is always thinking outside the box. When you start getting rules named after you, you know you are finding new ways to do things.”
Harbaugh likes what he’s seen of Fleck, too, praising the resolve with which the Gophers play.
“I’ve always been impressed,” Harbaugh said. “Being around him in person and watching his teams … the hustle is the first thing that stands out. Good players, tough schemes.”
For Michigan, it’s the talent that stands out, especially on defense. The Wolverines lead the Big Ten and rank fourth nationally in total defense and have held every opponent to fewer than 20 points, except for the 42-13 loss at Penn State. Key up front are two seniors, burly defensive tackle Maurice Hurst and rangy defensive end Chase Winovich. They’ve helped the Wolverines lead the nation in third-down defense, allowing a 23.6 percent conversion rate.
The person coordinating that stout Michigan defense is Don Brown, a 62-year-old coaching veteran who earned a reputation for developing stingy defenses for Boston College before doing the same for Michigan starting last year.
Fleck recalled an old joke in the coaching profession, when describing how to combat a Brown-coached defense.
“The best way to attack Don Brown’s defenses is to punt on third down,” Fleck said, repeating the joke. “That’s a compliment to him.”
Instead, the Gophers will have to improve on their third-down performance, which ranks 96th nationally, converting 35.7 percent. In last week’s 17-10 loss at Iowa, Minnesota went 3-for-14 on third downs.
“We have to win on first and second down,” Fleck said. “Their third-down defense is exceptional. They’re gonna do things on third down that we haven’t seen and haven’t prepared for. That’s why they’re so good.”