P.J. Fleck swooped into Minnesota at full force last January, preaching his vision, his methods and his desire to make Gophers football a major player on the national stage. The 36-year-old was not shy about making waves through his unconventional, energetic approach.
“His personality,” wide receiver Rashad Still said in Fleck’s reality TV show, “is like being in a tornado.”
In Minnesota, where stoicism is expected if not celebrated — Did you hear the one about the Scandinavian man who loved his wife so much he almost told her? — Fleck can be an acquired taste to many.
However, during his Gophers coaching debut in Thursday’s tighter-than-expected 17-7 victory over Buffalo, Fleck showed a different side: the pragmatic football coach.
Fleck’s play-calling and decisionmaking showed a coach who prioritized needs over wants. Sure, he wanted his team to put on an entertaining show in his debut. But he needed to get that victory.
“We had to do what we had to do to win the football game,” Fleck said afterward.
How very Minnesotan of him.
That pragmatic approach was most apparent in the second half, with the Gophers holding a 14-7 lead. Though Minnesota’s offensive line wasn’t providing much push — “It was a stalemate up front all night,” quarterback Demry Croft said — Fleck and offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca kept calling on Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith. The duo combined to rush 20 times in the second half, one fewer than the first, but they averaged 4.1 yards per carry after intermission and just 3.1 before.
Leaning on the run game, while not thrilling or wildly successful, got Fleck the result he needed.
Late in the third quarter, the Gophers used mid-length runs — 4 yards here, 7 yards there — to set up Conor Rhoda completions to Demetrius Douglas and Brooks that produced first downs. The drive ultimately stalled with a couple of incompletions and Emmit Carpenter missed a 36-yard field-goal attempt, but the Gophers had driven deep into Buffalo territory and munched 4 minutes, 38 seconds off the clock.
Fleck also relied on a stout defensive performance in the second half — the Gophers gave up only 69 yards after intermission — and that enabled him to continue with his ball-control approach, particularly on the clinching drive.
Minnesota got the ball back with 7:22 left, and Fleck’s plan to tenderize Buffalo’s defense was in full force. Nine running plays — including a Smith 10-yard dash and a Croft 9-yard scamper for first downs — were the most effective parts of a 13-play drive that killed over five minutes of clock. Better yet: Carpenter’s kick was true this time, from 43 yards, giving the Gophers separation in the form of a 17-7 lead with 2:05 left.
It wasn’t only Fleck’s use of the run game that showed a cautious approach. The Gophers didn’t gamble much, going for it only once on fourth down — Brooks’ 3-yard run on fourth-and-1 from the Minnesota 46 in the third quarter. And when the Gophers faced fourth-and-3 from the Buffalo 47 in the first quarter and fourth-and-2 from the Bulls’ 43 in the third, Fleck sent out punter Ryan Santoso to pin the opponent deep in its end.
“When you get to the point where you’re missing field goals, you throw an interception in the end zone, you’re moving the ball really well and you stop yourself,” Fleck said, “you have to make sure as a head football coach you don’t keep beating yourself and don’t finish beating yourself on the final score.”
Pragmatic football, by a coach selling the sizzle but needing the steak.