Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck couldn’t even make it through his quote without heaving a weary sigh.
“I think we’re a little bit emotionally,” Fleck said, pausing to let out a long exhale, “I wouldn’t even say tired. We can’t get tired. But we’re just a little bit spent, a little bit where we need the bye. Bye week came at perfect time. Everybody needs to take a big deep breath. Three very big, emotional games. And they could have been a loss.”
The Gophers survived the nonconference season but barely. Near misses against an FCS team and two Group of Five programs went down to essentially the last play. Fleck said he always knew these opponents weren’t pushovers despite not being Power Five. But going into a week off with the Big Ten opener at Purdue looming Sept. 28 and not having a dominant performance in their 3-0 start isn’t exactly comforting for the Gophers.
Fleck said his team has seen more in three games than some teams do in an entire season — blocked field-goal attempts returned for touchdowns and muffed punts, for example. But all of that has been educational. And that the Gophers still are undefeated proves they can win games even when they don’t play their best.
The coach planned to use this bye week as an opportunity for “self-scouting” to fix some of the Gophers self-inflicted errors. He also floated the idea of personnel changes as a solution.
But at least one of his players isn’t feeling mentally exhausted.
“To be honest with you, I’m just really excited to get back in the film room and continue to get better,” senior rush end Carter Coughlin said. “I mean, Coach Fleck said it: We were good enough for right now. And we are 3-0, and that’s exactly where we wanted to be. But we’ve got a lot of different areas that we need to improve on. So I’m excited to have a whole two weeks for us to get a lot better and come out flying around against Purdue.”
The Boilermakers (1-2) also have a bye this week, coming off a loss to TCU.
Keeping it simple
Fleck said after the season opener against South Dakota State he felt his offense was purposefully “vanilla” despite depth at running back, wide receiver and tight end. That’s something offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca strives for so as not to overcomplicate in the first game after the team had spent the past several months learning the playbook.
Against Georgia Southern last Saturday, Fleck again reflected on the offense, specifically in reference to the run game amassing only 93 yards. The team was largely without its top two running backs in Rodney Smith and Mohamed Ibrahim.
The Gophers are sticking with their inside zone blocking scheme. Sometimes, it works perfectly, like in the rivalry win against Wisconsin last season, but there are nuances to it that this group is learning.
“We’re just not doing it very well right now,” Fleck said. “And again, we have to find ways to get everybody else the ball creatively. And we will. But our bread and butter is the inside zone, and everybody knows that. And everybody schemes against that.”
The offensive line has allowed 11 sacks and the Gophers have rushed for just 371 rushing yards in the first three games. Fleck attributed that to inexperience on a unit without a senior and with minimal time together. But the coach said the only way to improve the O-line is to play more.