That was rain falling Sunday afternoon, not the sky.

A day after the Gophers suffered their first loss under first-year coach P.J. Fleck, a mistake-filled 31-24 setback against Maryland in the Big Ten opener, gloom and doom was the theme on social media.

That’s understandable after an undefeated team loses a game in which it was a double-digit favorite according to the Las Vegas number-crunchers. Remember, “fan” is short for “fanatic,” so measured responses after a frustrating loss shouldn’t be expected. The first “Fire PJ” mention even showed up in this beat writer’s Twitter feed.

But what was lost Saturday was a game, not the season — unless you were expecting an undefeated record and a run to the Rose Bowl. Instead, we saw what the Gophers are: a team with flaws, one that is transitioning under a new coach and a squad that must improve as its quality of competition does.

On many counts, the Gophers’ loss on Saturday was a case of water finding its level. Here’s why:

Charmin-soft nonconference schedule

Turns out, the Gophers’ closest nonconference game — a 17-7 season-opening win over Buffalo — was against the team expected to be the weakest.

The Bulls, a Mid-American Conference bottom-feeder last year, were a pest for the Gophers into the second half before Minnesota got late separation. Buffalo (3-2) is on a three-game winning streak and could be a factor in the MAC.

Oregon State, which the Gophers rolled 48-14 in Corvallis, ranks with Baylor, Rutgers and Missouri among the worst Power Five teams. The Beavers (1-4) are giving up 46.4 points per game, which ranks 128th out of 130 FBS teams. And Middle Tennessee (2-3) has been a shell of itself after losing the heart and soul of its offense — quarterback Brent Stockstill and wide receiver Richie James.

The increase in quality from the nonconference foes to Maryland was apparent Saturday, especially on defense. The Terrapins took away the Gophers’ bread and butter, holding them to 80 rushing yards.

“There’s a difference in loading up the box in Big Ten play and loading up the box in Group of Five play at times,” Fleck said.

U needs a running threat from Rhoda

Quarterback Conor Rhoda rushed only one time Saturday, and Maryland was able to stuff Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks with little threat of the quarterback keeping the ball and stretching the defense.

“There may be opportunities [to run], but it’s a feel thing throughout the game,” Rhoda said. “I trust 1 [Smith] and 23 [Brooks] so much that I want the ball in their hands.”

Fleck wants Rhoda to run when it’s available, but he also wants to protect the QB, too.

“If we run Conor more and we lose Conor, we’re really in some bad positions,” Fleck said Sunday on WCCO Radio.

Fleck is building things his way

Fleck often refers to this year as “Year Zero,” an indication that implementing his program is more important than the record this year. That might be tough for some fans to take, because tickets aren’t listed with “Price Zero.”

Case in point is his handling of discipline. Quarterback Demry Croft, who has the type of athletic ability that can stretch a defense, remains indefinitely suspended for violating team rules. And on Saturday, starting safety Duke McGhee was suspended of disciplinary reasons. His presence against Maryland could have made a difference in a threadbare secondary.

But to Fleck, setting expectations on team rules was more important than compromising his values in search of a win.

Will it work? Time has that answer.

We know, however, there will be growing pains. We saw that on Saturday.


Randy Johnson covers college football

for the Star Tribune.

Twitter: @RJStrib