Over the course of its final four games of the 2018 season, including the bowl game, the Gophers football team ranked 13th in the nation in point differential, outscoring opponents 126-67.
The only Big Ten team that was more dominant down the stretch was Iowa. The Hawkeyes outscored their final four opponents 131-64, including a 63-0 drubbing of Illinois.
In their final four-game stretch the Gophers beat an excellent Purdue team 41-10 at home, fell in a tough contest against Big Ten West champion Northwestern 24-14, won 37-15 at Wisconsin for their first victory in Madison since 1994 and then defeated Georgia Tech 34-10 in the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit.
The Gophers completed their spring session Saturday with the Maroon team beating the Gold 38-20 in the spring game, which was moved indoors to the Athletes Village. Coach P.J. Fleck said there is no doubt the team wants to find a way to carry over that momentum into the 2019 season, and that all began this spring.
“We always want to find a way to be able to start fast, accelerate in the middle and finish strong,” Fleck said. “We have said that since Day 1. Whether it’s starting practice fast, accelerate in the middle, finish strong at practice or whether that is games, whether that’s the season, it doesn’t matter if it is the day, the week or the year. We want to be able to do that all the time.”
Fleck said that up to this point, the team has accomplished what it set out to do over the spring.
He said he hasn’t been surprised by the way his squad has taken to a season that figures to have much higher expectations than it did 2018.
“I’m not surprised but excited about the growth of our football team,” Fleck said. “I think our coaches have done a great job developing all the small details, fundamentals of the team. They picked up right where we left off from bowl practice, and I think they’re working really hard.”
And while most coaches will say they don’t listen to national pundits, Fleck said it is important to prepare this team for the fact that around the country the Gophers will be expected to contend for a Big Ten title.
“We’re going to constantly educate our players of how to be able to handle those types of things,” he said. “A lot of them haven’t had that type of expectation or pressure put upon them from the outside world.”
Returning players will be key
One of the more unique elements of this Gophers offseason is that they are returning 37 of the 44 players on their two-deep chart from the bowl game. Some of the most important players coming back didn’t even play in Detroit.
That includes defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr., who looked like one of the best players in the country until a foot injury ended his season after four games. Fleck said the biggest advantage of the spring was having Winfield back on the field.
“I think for him, it is just to get his mind-set that he is healthy,” Fleck said. “I think when you haven’t played in two years, for a full season, you start to maybe even doubt yourself. I think the spring has shown that he has been able to trust his health, trust him getting better, and it is good for him to get back on the field. I think he has worked really hard to be able to earn the right to think that way.”
Another big test will be how the Gophers handle their running backs. They will have Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks back after injuries last year, but they also have a huge collection of other talented backs, including major contributors from 2018 such as Mohamed Ibrahim, who ran 10 times for 84 yards and a touchdown Saturday.
“I think [former Gophers coach] Glen Mason said you have to have a pair and a spare,” Fleck said. “We will have a pair and a spare and a backup tire and another backup tire. We want to be able to have that. Last year we could have used it. Rodney and Shannon have played a lot of football for us, Mohamed Ibrahim rushed for over 1,000 yards last year, Bryce Williams as a true freshman played really well. He has gotten a lot better.
“Then from there you throw in a lot of other guys who are competing for spots. You look at guys that haven’t even been here yet, Cam Wiley is not even here. He hasn’t had a chance to be able to compete for that job. Preston Jelen had a really nice spring. Trey Potts is getting healthy and we haven’t seen what he can do yet.”
Fleck did say that while the team is bringing back its most complete roster of his tenure, he still sees a lot of room for growth.
“It is my job to find the weaknesses every day,” he said. “We have a lot of them. We’re doing everything we can to develop them every day.”
Now that the spring season is over, Fleck said coaches will turn their focus to a tough nonconference schedule of South Dakota State, Fresno State and Georgia Southern.
“We’re going to take it one game at a time,” Fleck said. “We’re going to get better today. We’ve done a really good job in the spring, and we will do it in the summer of really evaluating and doing mock game plans for our opponents. But that’s a long way away. We need to get our team better first, right now. That is what we’re focusing on.”
• Timberwolves (and Star Tribune) owner Glen Taylor on the team’s plans for restricted free agent Tyus Jones: “It’s a little bit out of our hands [what kind offer he will get from other teams], but it’s a player we know very well. I think just listening to him that he likes working with [Ryan Saunders] and being in Minnesota.”
• Jim Nantz will call the final round of the Masters on Sunday, and he told me how he prepares for the biggest tournament in golf. “I don’t have charts and boards out in front of me when I call it,” he said. “I just call it from the heart. I just try to dial up things I have compartmentalized in my head, certain files I have on players and stories that haven’t been told that might blend in with the broadcast at the right time.”
• A headline in Baseball America read: “The Twins Are The Sleeper Team of 2019.” The Twins have played by far the fewest games in MLB this season, but assuming good weather, Saturday’s game was the first of 12 in 12 days.
• Word around college basketball is that Rick Pitino, the father of Gophers coach Richard Pitino, might get a chance to coach in college again at Cincinnati, after Mick Cronin left the Bearcats for UCLA.
• David Carr of the NFL Network played quarterback under Gary Kubiak in 2006 when the new Vikings assistant was coach of the Texans. He called Kubiak “a guy who knows what to ask for” out of a QB. In their one season together, Carr led the NFL in completion percentage at 68.3%.
• ESPN’s most recent NFL mock draft had the Vikings taking Jonah Williams, Alabama offensive lineman, at No. 18.
• On the basketball side, ESPN has the Wolves drafting shooting guard Kevin Porter Jr. out of USC. He averaged 9.5 points as a freshman.
• The Gophers had 2020 prospect Justin Bellido in town this weekend. The wide receiver out of New York City has offers from Boston College and Syracuse.