There’s no sugarcoating the Gophers’ finish of the 2017 football season.
Losses to Northwestern and Wisconsin by a combined score of 70-0. An offense that completed only five passes in the two games. A defense that gave up 277 rushing yards one week and 287 the next. It all added up to a rock-bottom ending to a 5-7 season.
Nearly eight months later, P.J. Fleck won’t let that finish define the season, but rather he wants this year’s team to learn from the tough ending.
“There’s a lot of factors that went into those two games. I thought we didn’t refuse to lose,’’ the Gophers coach said during the team’s media day on Tuesday at the Athletes Village. “We got to the end of the year, and people assumed, ‘We’ve been to bowl games. We’ll go to bowl games.’ If you’re not humble, you will be humbled.’’
That’s a sentiment shared by the team’s leadership, looking to rinse that bad taste of late November.
“Coach Fleck was disappointed. We were all disappointed,’’ junior linebacker Thomas Barber, the team’s leading tackler in 2017, said from Big Ten media days in Chicago last week. “It doesn’t matter, defense or offense, we just didn’t have the game where we played together.’’
The motivation for 2018 takes the next step Wednesday, when the Gophers begin their second training camp under Fleck. They’ll have the benefit of a year’s experience in the coach’s system, but with only nine scholarship seniors on the roster, they’ll need youngsters to mature quickly because they’ll be called on to play.
“Looking forward to this young, inexperienced football team and seeing what it can do,’’ said Fleck, whose team opens its season Aug. 30 against New Mexico State at TCF Bank Stadium. “Just because we’re young doesn’t mean we’re not talented. It’s going to be a fun training camp with competition across the board.’’
The most important area where youth and competition converge will be at quarterback, where Fleck’s options — redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan and early enrollee true freshman Zack Annexstad — will vie for the starting job. It’s a position that could be fluid throughout the season.
“Whoever wins the team — consistency, decisive decisions, who can own the mistakes they make, who can change the most, who can get better,’’ Fleck responded when asked how he’d determine his starter. “… Just because you won the job at the end of training camp doesn’t mean you’re going to keep the job. You still have to perform at a high level. As the other person grows, do they grow ahead of you? This is going to be a neck-and-neck battle.’’
Whichever quarterback wins the starting job, he better take care of the ball. The Gophers were minus-4 in turnover margin during Big Ten play, which ranked 10th in the conference. “Turnover margin is absolutely critical for us,’’ Fleck said.
Familiarity with the Fleck and his coaching staff should lead to an improved team, according to junior linebacker Carter Coughlin.
“We’re just way more prepared going into fall camp,’’ Coughlin said. “We’re not dealing with all the outside stuff going on. So far, it’s just been strictly football.’’
Blake Cashman sees that leading to a more intelligent group of Gophers.
“It’s night and day, complete difference, as a team, too,’’ the senior linebacker said. “We’re a lot smarter football team. … I’m excited to see how it pays off in the fall.’’
Coughlin took it a bold step further. “We’re going to shock some people,’’ he said, “wake some people up.’’