TAMPA, FLA. – Now that the season is over, Gophers coach P.J. Fleck will turn his full attention to finding a new offensive coordinator.
Matt Simon made a strong case for himself in Wednesday’s Outback Bowl.
Filling in as interim coordinator and play-caller, Simon did a masterful job of keeping Auburn’s defense off-balance in a 31-24 win at Raymond James Stadium.
Fleck elevated Simon, the wide receivers coach, after coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca took the same post at Penn State. Fleck didn’t address his pending decision after the game, but Simon’s performance as a first-time play-caller was impressive … and gutsy on one critical fourth down.
The Gophers established ideal balance in rolling up 494 yards — 215 yards rushing, 279 passing. They held the ball for 37 minutes, 35 seconds — 15 minutes longer than Auburn had possession.
“Matt Simon called a tremendous game,” Fleck said. “He was poised all day.”
Auburn boasts one of the top defensive lines in college football anchored by Derrick Brown, a projected top-10 pick in the upcoming NFL draft. The Tigers ranked 13th nationally in scoring defense (18.6 points), even holding LSU’s high-scoring offense to only 23 points.
Fleck said the Gophers had to be unpredictable with a variety of play calls to keep Auburn uncertain.
“We thought our only chance was to wear them out up front somehow, someway, just to give us a chance,” Fleck said.
The offensive line won its matchup physically, enabling the running game to get on track, which helped set up play-action passes. Simon got into a rhythm as a play-caller.
“Our staff did a phenomenal job of putting us in good situations and mixing it up and let our guys go out and make plays,” quarterback Tanner Morgan said.
Fleck gave Ciarrocca autonomy in running the offense, and he showed supreme confidence in Simon at the moment of truth. On fourth-and-1 from Auburn’s 41 late in the game, Fleck signed off on Simon’s play call — a play-action pass to tight end Bryce Witham.
Fleck called a timeout to discuss the situation.
“I didn’t question him on it,” Fleck said. “But I did ask him one more time, ‘This is what you want to run?’ He said, ‘Absolutely, Coach.’ I was like, man, first-day coordinator, you’re all over it. It was a necessary call.”
Witham made a one-handed catch for an 11-yard completion. The Gophers ran out the rest of the clock.
“I’m not going to micromanage my people at all,” Fleck said. “I’m going to hire really good people, and we’re going to let them coach.”
Simon received universal praise from coaches, players and also Auburn’s side after his debut as interim coordinator.
“Their coaches had a super game plan,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “They executed it.”
Fleck said last week that he already had interviews set up and that he hopes to hire a new coordinator quickly. Whomever he picks will inherit a strong nucleus of returners that includes Morgan, star receiver Rashod Bateman, running back Mohamed Ibrahim and the entire offensive line. That’s the foundation for another high-scoring offense.
Simon made his case to be the conductor.
“I think he took the whole week, captured it, ran with it,” Fleck said.