The scoreboard said it was a 25-point loss. The stats said Michigan amassed 481 yards of offense. And the record says the Gophers are 0-1.
All of those realities hit home in the postgame film review of Saturday night’s 49-24 home loss to Michigan for P.J. Fleck, but what the Gophers coach also saw were some opportunities lost and several moments to correct.
“There are a lot of things that you’d love to be able to have back,” Fleck said during a video news conference Monday. “When you watch the film, it’s a closer game than the actual score ends up, but nobody cares at the end of the day.”
The season moves on — and this week it’s at a quicker pace than usual, as the Gophers prepare for Friday night’s game at Maryland, the first of three such Friday contests over the next four weeks. Fleck’s aim against the Terrapins — 43-3 losers at Northwestern in their opener and 20-point underdogs to the Gophers — is to see the defense grow up in a hurry; the offense fully take advantage of its opportunities, and the special teams recover quickly.
“I loved how hard our team played,” Fleck said. “But just because you play hard doesn’t mean you’re going to win. We’ve got to execute way better.”
On defense, a unit that lost seven starters from 2019, gaining experience is the first route to improvement. Michigan gashed the Gophers for 256 rushing yards, 8.3 per attempt. The first big blow by the Wolverines was a 70-yard touchdown run by Zach Charbonnet through a parted defense. It came on the first play from scrimmage after the Gophers had taken a 7-0 lead, sapping any Minnesota momentum. Late in the third quarter, Hassan Haskins initially was stuffed at the line of scrimmage but wiggled through and took off for a 66-yard gain that set up Michigan’s final TD.
“The tackling has to improve,” Fleck said. “It has to get a lot better and will. It will get better. … There are some guys that are in there that are a little hesitant.”
Junior linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin agreed.
“There’s going to be growing pains. With a new set of guys, that’s going to be expected,” he said after the game. “ … Defensively, we know we’re much better than what we showed [Saturday]. We need to respond.”
The Gophers offense put up some solid numbers — 140 rushing yards from Mohamed Ibrahim, nine catches for 101 yards from Rashod Bateman — but left some points on the table.
The first lost opportunity came after Michigan took a 14-7 lead on the strip sack of Tanner Morgan for a touchdown. The Gophers marched down the field and had first-and-goal from the Wolverines 2. A false-start penalty, followed by three plays combined to lose 4 yards forced to the Gophers to settle for Brock Walker’s 29-yard field goal. Instead of a tie score, the score was 14-10.
In the third quarter after the Gophers and Michigan traded touchdowns to make it 42-24, Minnesota had a chance to make it an 11-point game. The Gophers drove to the Wolverines 4 before Ibrahim was stuffed for no gain on second down. Morgan then threw incomplete to Rashod Bateman on third down and overthrew Ibrahim in the end zone on fourth.
“There are a lot of things that we need to clean up,” Fleck acknowledged.
A return to normalcy on the special teams would help, too. Because of COVID-19 issues, the Gophers were without starting punter Mark Crawford, first-string kicker Michael Lantz and top kickoff man Grant Ryerse, though all three were on the sideline. The absences contributed to Michigan starting possessions at the Minnesota 45 (after a 31-yard punt), at the 8 (after a 66-yard kickoff return) and at the 47 (after an 18-yard punt) in the first half. “It kind of hit the specialists hard, and it hit them at different times,” Fleck said after the game.
The status of those three is uncertain for the Maryland game.
“Somebody will punt the football, I promise you that, on Friday night,” Fleck said on his KFXN-FM radio appearance Monday.