On the way to a breakthrough season in 2019, P.J. Fleck’s Gophers faced little in-game adversity in terms of needing to fight back from double-digit deficits.
They had some close calls in the nonconference season, trailing South Dakota State by a point, Fresno State by seven three times and Georgia Southern by four late in the fourth quarter. Still, they found a way to eke out wins, be it by converting a Jackrabbits turnover into a late TD, getting a spectacular Chris Autman-Bell catch to force OT in Fresno and overcoming a third-and-29 predicament from their own 6 on the winning drive vs. Georgia Southern.
In their seven Big Ten wins, the Gophers trailed only once — 7-0 very early to Illinois — and began conference play with a six-game winning streak. Getting an early lead and forcing the opponent to play lefthanded served Fleck and his troops well on the way to a No. 10 national ranking in the final Associated Press poll.
The scoreboard adversity for the Gophers came in their two losses, in which they trailed 13-0 before falling 23-19 at Iowa and by 14, 21 and 28 points in a 38-17 loss to Wisconsin.
That brings us to Saturday night’s 2020 season opener against Michigan at TCF Bank Stadium. The Gophers scored first, hung within four points of the Wolverines into the second quarter but succumbed to a Michigan offense that overwhelmed Minnesota’s defense in a 49-24 romp. Instead of dictating terms to the opponent as they had most of last year, the Gophers were the ones forced to play lefthanded, and the result was the Wolverines toting the Little Brown Jug back to Ann Arbor for the 45th times in the past 48 meetings.
“That was a really good football team we just played,’’ Fleck said.
The stats back that up. Michigan averaged 8.3 yards per carry on its way to 256 rushing yards, saw quarterback Joe Milton average 10.2 yards per passing attempt, and had nine consecutive offensive possessions that resulted in either a touchdown (six) or a missed field-goal attempt (three). Aside from a first-possession blocked punt, a next-to-last possession turnover on downs and a final kneel-down, the Gophers did not stop the Wolverines.
Turns out, those four NFL draftees from the Gophers 2019 defense, plus three other starters lost to graduation, weren’t going to be replaced immediately. Saturday’s starters included true freshman Cody Lindenberg at linebacker.
“With Braelen Oliver out, it’s hard,’’ Fleck said of the injured sophomore, who played in 13 games last year. “Everybody else behind him are guys who haven’t played yet. … Who’s gonna make the least amount of mistakes? Who’s gonna limit the bleeding?’’
The defense’s deficiencies put the onus on the offense to play catch-up, and that left little room for error. The Gophers had a chance to tie it 14-14 late in the first quarter when they had first-and-goal from the Michigan 2. However, a false-start penalty, two completions that netted minus-4 yards and an incomplete pass made them settle for a field goal. Minnesota trailed 21-17 before Michigan scored two TDs in the final 4:48 of the first half for a 35-17 lead.
Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan wasn’t his usual efficient self, completing 18 of 31 passes for 197 yards and a TD with an interception. He found star receiver Rashod Bateman nine times for 101 yards, but Michigan kept Bateman out of the end zone.
“I just have to be better. Period,’’ Morgan said. “It’s my fault, not anybody else.’’
Fleck called Morgan’s performance “inconsistent’’ but didn’t fully blame his quarterback, who was under duress from Michigan’s defense.
“Alabama and Ohio State — those are the two teams I’ve watched protect well against that [Michigan] front,’’ Fleck said.
Fleck acknowledged he and his team have “a lot of work to do’’ before they can approach the heights they reached last year. Michigan made that perfectly clear Saturday night.