The easy scapegoat for the Gophers’ 45-44 overtime loss at Maryland on Friday is Brock Walker, the redshirt sophomore kicker whose flubbed extra point ended the game.
But blaming a young walk-on who has tried his best to take on kickoffs and field goals despite still recovering from sports hernia surgery misses the mark. And Gophers coach P.J. Fleck knows his team’s problems go well beyond his players.
“Everything starts with me,” he said after the game.
Several coaching decisions garnered a critical eye. Like the way the Gophers abandoned their passing game on three fourth-quarter drives as their 17-point lead slipped away. They had hoped to drain the clock by keeping the ball on the ground, but Maryland started stuffing the run and took advantage.
The Gophers players, certainly, have some accountability to take, especially on defense, where 675 yards allowed plus multiple explosive plays unbalanced the team. Fleck said that made it harder on his offense to manage the game and run the clock.
Fleck plans to re-evaluate via film the team’s scheme, technique and personnel to diagnose the problem. Some of the miscues, such as missing a tackle despite being in position for it, could be remedied with more practice. Changing the lineup will be tricky, considering injuries, COVID-19 absences and a depth chart of mostly inexperienced players on defense.
The strategy part, though, comes down to the coaches, including defensive coordinator Joe Rossi. And considering Maryland’s offense and quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa had no problem spreading the Gophers defense wide, Rossi will be on the spot to find solutions before the Gophers face Illinois on Saturday.
Rossi’s defense drew comparisons to that of fired DC Robb Smith, whom Rossi stepped in for in 2018. Two games into a season is likely too early for any massive coaching changes, especially in a year with athletics departments’ cash-strapped from the pandemic and probably not seeking to pay any buyout clauses. Plus, there might be more benefit of the doubt given this season, considering no team had a full offseason to prepare for this delayed and shortened schedule.
Fleck remarked how COVID-19 affects so many facets of his team, from which players are available to which plays to call. For example, the starting kicker, punter and kickoff specialist were out presumably for COVID-19 reasons in the season opener. And while Michael Lantz, the main kicker last season, returned at Maryland, he wasn’t fully up to speed. So Walker, who could only do pooch or squib kicks because of his ailment, continued with field goals while Lantz took kickoffs.
If Lantz had retained his former duties, maybe that final point-after wouldn’t have gone awry. But if Fleck wanted to take responsibility, he could have tried for a two-point conversion instead to end the game in the Gophers’ favor.
“I probably would have thought about it maybe on the second one, but not the first one,” Fleck said of his overtime call. “I felt like we had them in a third-and-long at one point. I felt like we were getting the ball. We just scored. I felt like we were getting the ball back, being able to go down there and score, put the pressure back on them. It really never went through my mind [to go for two].”
Fleck and Rossi aren’t the only Gophers coaches whose strategies fell short. Special teams coordinator Rob Wenger’s units have perennially battled for consistency, which a sapped depth chart hasn’t helped this year. New offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr, has benefited from Mohamed Ibrahim’s strong ground games but hasn’t seemed to find the same spark in the passing game, despite having All-Big Ten quarterback Tanner Morgan and Big Ten Receiver of the Year Rashod Bateman at his disposal.
After the game, Fleck said he told his locker room it’s these kinds of hard losses that build a program.
“We are going to swallow this pill. We’re not going to ignore it. We’re not going to run away from it,” Fleck said. “We’re going to embrace it, and we’re going to get better from it, and we’re going to learn.”
Megan Ryan covers the Gophers and college football for the Star Tribune. firstname.lastname@example.org