Tampa, Fla. – The last time the Gophers football team played in a New Year’s Day bowl game in Florida, Jerry Kill coached so buttoned-up you’d have thought he was wearing a straitjacket.
It happened in the 2015 Citrus Bowl vs. Missouri. Kill took a painfully conservative approach to end the first half of the program’s first Jan. 1 bowl game in five decades.
Conversely, Missouri’s Gary Pinkel coached as if he were playing with house money. He called a fake punt from his own 17-yard line and an onside kick to start the second half. It was super aggressive. And brilliant. Brilliant, perhaps, because those gambles worked, but that’s the spirit of these postseason exhibitions. Cut it loose. Why not?
Bowl games are meant to be a reward for the regular season, but they also become an interesting exercise in approach. Basically, which team cares more and which team unveils new wrinkles that catch their opponent off guard? Watch enough of the bowl season and you get the point.
This should be P.J. Fleck’s mind-set in facing Auburn in the Outback Bowl: Coach aggressively. Showcase new plays. Try new things.
I’m not suggesting he draw up plays in the dirt or call an endless barrage of flea-flickers and double-reverse passes to quarterback Tanner Morgan (although that would be highly entertaining). But don’t settle for field goals on fourth-and-short inside Auburn territory either. Bowl games don’t present the same pressure and stress as November conference games.
That’s not to say winning doesn’t matter. It does. Especially this one. The Gophers have a chance to end their historic season with a bang.
Ten wins set a new benchmark for the program. Finishing 11-2 with a win over a highly respected SEC opponent would further validate this season and send a smashing volley to criticism that they went 1-2 against quality opponents.
“We’re here to win a football game,” Fleck said. “There’s a reason that you’re here. This isn’t just a team trip. You’re here to win a football game.”
This game is both a significant challenge for the Gophers and a grand opportunity. Auburn has posted wins over Alabama and Oregon, and it lost by only three points at LSU. The Tigers field one of the best defenses in college football anchored by stud tackle Derrick Brown, a lock first-round pick in the upcoming NFL draft.
“We’re talented, they’re talented, I think it’s going to be a great matchup,” Fleck said.
The Gophers already bring an element of uncertainty on offense with the departure of coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, who left for Penn State. Fleck elevated wide receivers coach Matt Simon to interim coordinator. Fleck will assist him, though it’s unknown to what degree he will engage in play-calling.
The scheme won’t change, but maybe Simon and Fleck have a few tricks in mind. The Gophers likely will need some razzle-dazzle as touchdown underdogs. More than anything though, they must play to their strengths, like what we saw in a 31-26 win over Penn State, a masterful blueprint.
The coaching staff was overly cautious in the finale against Wisconsin, notably in a first-quarter sequence with a chance to extend a 7-0 lead. They punted (literally) on a chance to back the Badgers into a corner. Lesson learned: Stay aggressive, trust their playmakers.
Morgan threw exactly one interception in 93 pass attempts against three top-10 defenses in November. Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman are double trouble for any secondary. All-America safety Antoine Winfield Jr. is one of the five best defensive playmakers in college football, playing in what might be his final game before departing for the NFL.
Ride that star power often and creatively.
Fleck called this season successful regardless of the bowl game’s outcome, which is true. His program became more relevant in checking off major milestones in team and individual superlatives. Player development remained an encouraging theme. Fan interest multiplied. A win over Auburn would feel like an exclamation point.
“I think we’ve gained attention nationally from a lot of people with a 10-win season,” Fleck said. “Every time you shake it up, you create a new expectation.”
Here’s their chance to shake it up even more. Empty the playbook.