DETROIT – Throughout the season, P.J. Fleck spoke of how his Gophers football team was growing, even though the record didn’t always show it. An 0-4 start to the Big Ten season, in which Minnesota was outscored 173-86, offered little tangible evidence of progress.
And when the Gophers fell 55-31 at lowly Illinois in early November to fall to 1-5 in the conference, the suggestion that the program was moving forward was met with furrowed brows of skepticism.
But nearly two months later — and coinciding with Fleck making a major change to his coaching staff — the Gophers suddenly have grown up. With their 34-10 rout of Georgia Tech in the Quick Lane Bowl on Wednesday, the Gophers finished the season with convincing victories in three of their final four games.
Just how big a turnaround has it been in Fleck’s two seasons? Check out these facts:
Last year, the Gophers closed the season by scoring zero points in their final two games.
This year, they closed the season by not needing to punt against Georgia Tech at all and punting zero times in the final 41:48 of their 37-15 walloping of Wisconsin in the regular-season finale.
That, folks, is progress.
Granted, the Gophers’ 7-6 overall record and 3-6 Big Ten mark are nowhere near the pinnacle Fleck wants his program to reach. The finish was, however, a step the team needed to take.
“I told them in the locker room that they learned life lessons about how to not give up, not quit, keep your oar in the water, keep persevering, and you’re going to find a way to be successful,” Fleck said in Wednesday’s postgame news conference. “It’s just a matter of time.”
That was on display in Detroit against Georgia Tech, when the Gophers ran the formula that served them well in their 3-1 finish: Get an early lead, control the clock, play sound defense and break the opponent’s will in the second half.
Minnesota scored on its first three possessions for a 13-0 lead against the Yellow Jackets, while holding the ball for nearly 14 of the game’s first 18 minutes. That forced Georgia Tech, a run-based triple-option team, to play lefthanded. The Yellow Jackets never cut the Gophers’ lead inside 10 points.
“I don’t even know what the punter’s number is. That’s frustrating,” Tech defensive end Desmond Branch said.
Branch wasn’t the first to walk away muttering after facing the Gophers down the stretch. Purdue coach Jeff Brohm admitted his team didn’t handle the elements well during Minnesota’s 41-10 hammering of the Boilermakers on a chilly Nov. 10. And after his team lost Paul Bunyan’s Axe to the Gophers for the first time since 2003, Wisconsin linebacker T.J. Edwards offered, “I never in a million years thought that we would lose this game, but we did.”
Common in those three late-season victories for the Gophers was a strong running game. They rushed for an average of 242 yards in those games. Freshman Mohamed Ibrahim ran for 224 yards alone against Georgia Tech after taking handoffs from freshman quarterback Tanner Morgan and running behind freshmen linemen Blaise Andries, Daniel Faalele and Curtis Dunlap Jr.
And remember: Ibrahim, who rushed for 1,160 yards in only 10 games, is the Gophers’ third-string running back. Seniors Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks suffered season-ending knee injuries and are expected to be back next year.
Offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca must be licking his chops with the weapons in his arsenal next year. Along with that stable of backs, he’ll have star wideout Tyler Johnson — “Basically, not done yet,” the junior said after the Quick Lane Bowl, an indication he’s staying for his senior year, instead of bolting for the NFL. Complementing Johnson will be productive freshman receivers Rashod Bateman and Chris Autman-Bell. In addition, the Gophers coaching staff is high on 6-7, 260-pound tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford, who preserved his redshirt this year.
Of course, the Gophers’ late-season surge followed Fleck’s decision to fire defensive coordinator Robb Smith after that loss in Champaign, Ill. Fleck replaced him with defensive line coach Joe Rossi, initially on an interim basis but on full-time terms after the victory at Wisconsin.
With Rossi in charge, the Gophers allowed an average of 14.8 points per game. In the 1-5 Big Ten start, Minnesota allowed 43.2. Fleck’s message of “simple, sound and fast,” along with Rossi’s attention to detail, helped salvage the season.
“Our players tackled really well, they did their job, they communicated really well,” Fleck said after the Gophers limited Georgia Tech, the nation’s leading rushing team at 334.2 yards per game, to 56 on the ground in the first half and 206 for the game. “Our coaches did a great job of subbing our players in and the type of packages we had, even though very concise, were worked to perfection.”
With the late-season success now come expectations. These young Gophers will be a year older in 2019, with room to improve. Fleck relishes the opportunity.
“When you have success, that’s when it’s the hardest — the sustainability to build on it,” Fleck said. “That’s the challenge champions have, and I believe our guys can handle it. The price tag just went up.”