P.J. Fleck watched the film. He saw the mistakes, the missed opportunities. He dissected how his Gophers football team performed in its season-opening 17-7 victory over Buffalo on Thursday night.
His verdict, four days later?
“We’ve got to get a lot better,” Fleck said Monday, and repeating for emphasis. “We got to get a lot better.”
Though the Gophers began the Fleck era of Minnesota football by winning, their offensive performance, especially, raised questions. The Gophers’ total of 17 points was the second lowest among Big Ten teams on opening weekend — Rutgers scored 14 in a loss to No. 8 Washington. The eight other Big Ten teams that opened with opponents from outside Power Five conferences averaged 34.5 points, more than doubling the Gophers’ output against Buffalo.
Relying on an offensive line and quarterback tandem going through on-the-job training, the Gophers took few chances. And the mistakes they made — Conor Rhoda throwing an interception in the end zone and Emmit Carpenter missing two field-goal attempts — showed how thin a margin this team has between success and failure.
“The objective was to not put much on the quarterbacks’ plate, to not put a lot on the offense’s plate that’s really never played together … and come out with a victory somehow, some way,” Fleck said. “And that’s what we did.”
Now, the assignment would appear to get tougher, with Saturday night’s visit to Oregon State. The Beavers (1-1) can score points — 62 in two games — but they also surrender a lot — 90 so far.
Where the Gophers could see hope on offense is that fact that they will face Oregon State’s porous run defense. On Saturday, FCS level Portland State rushed for 291 yards in a 35-32 loss to the Beavers, who a week earlier surrendered 191 on the ground in a 58-27 loss at Colorado State.
“The biggest problem right now I would say is that there’s not one part of the run game defense that we’re playing well,” Oregon State coach Gary Andersen said.
That could bode well for Gophers running backs Rodney Smith (23 carries, 76 yards vs. Buffalo) and Shannon Brooks (18 carries, 69 yards). But first the Minnesota offensive line, which was decimated by injuries in spring practice and had limited time as a full unit in training camp, must improve.
“I didn’t think we moved anybody,” Fleck said of the line’s play against Buffalo. “… We played as five different linemen instead of one offensive line, which takes time, which goes back to the ‘E’ word — experience.”
Same can be said for Rhoda and Demry Croft, who split the snaps at quarterback last week. They combined to go 19-for-32 for 239 yards and a touchdown, but after each led a first-quarter TD drive against Buffalo, the offense dried up until a field goal with 2:05 left in the fourth quarter.
“Offensively, the difference like I said in there between great and elite and average is like this much in each category,” Fleck said, holding his index finger and thumb an inch apart. “It’s the ability to get the third-and-3s and it’s the ability to not miss field goals, it’s the ability when it is a fourth-and-1 to go for it, instead of having to punt.”
Now, that task becomes to make that next step of improvement on the road.
“We all know that we didn’t even come close to playing our best football,” Fleck said. “When you can not play your best football and win a game like that, OK. Not that you get away with it, but you almost say, ‘OK, if we continue to do that, a lot of teams are going to beat us.’ ”
Devers might sit again
Fleck said he chose to sit defensive end Tai’yon Devers for Thursday’s opener because of undisclosed reasons and that the sophomore “possibly” will miss Saturday’s game at Oregon State.
“He’s not ready yet,” the coach said. “He’s got some things that I feel like we’re going to wait another week and bring him back after that. … Just depends on how the week goes. But I could see that being one more week.”
Devers had two sacks that forced fumbles in the Gophers’ 30-23 victory over Oregon State in last year’s season opener.