LINCOLN, NEB. – P.J. Fleck shouldn’t blame youth for the debacle that transpired Saturday afternoon. Oh, he tried to play that card, of course, but let’s save that discussion for another day.
The manner in which one of the lowest-scoring offenses in major college football shredded Fleck’s defense with breathtakingly ease wasn’t merely a product of age. The Gophers started nine upperclassmen on defense, only one freshman.
One week after displaying plenty of grit and competitive fight at Ohio State, the defense offered no resistance whatsoever against winless Nebraska at Memorial Stadium.
The result was a humbling 53-28 loss that kept the Gophers winless in the Big Ten and further exposed major issues with their defense.
“We didn’t come close to stopping them,” Fleck said.
It’s become too convenient to pin everything on youth. Yes, the Gophers are young in spots (which is Fleck’s desired plan, mind you) and losing their best defensive player, Antoine Winfield Jr., to a season-ending injury was a significant blow.
But excuses ring hollow after a performance so feeble. If their effort against Ohio State represented a step forward, this felt like 10 steps backward.
Sorry, no moral victories this week.
The Huskers ranked 109th nationally in scoring at 23.3 points per game. The Gophers made them look like Alabama.
The defense gave up 659 total yards, which included 10 plays that gained at least 20 yards. Ten!
Fleck described some of the big plays as “catastrophic,” which wasn’t hyperbole.
The Huskers had three players rush for 100 yards. Freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez completed his first 11 passes and had only four incompletions in 29 attempts with three touchdown passes.
Devine Ozigbo had touchdown runs of 40 and 59 yards in the first quarter.
The Huskers converted 8 of 12 third-down opportunities and, remarkably, scored 53 points while holding the ball less than the Gophers in time of possession.
The entire defense looked woefully unprepared to stop either the run or pass. That falls on Fleck but especially defensive coordinator Robb Smith, whose job deserves scrutiny based on how poorly his unit has played.
In Big Ten games, the Gophers are allowing more than 40 points per game. Going back to the final two games last season, the Gophers have allowed these point totals the past six Big Ten games: 39, 31, 42, 48, 30 and 53.
“Very hard to win that way,” Fleck said. “You see the 40 points. I see the internal things that are there that we have to fix.”
Talent level, for one. The Gophers need an infusion of defensive playmakers and more depth. But Fleck also needs to examine whether Smith’s scheme is putting players in position to be at least competent.
“Schematically we’re in the right position, we just don’t make the play,” Fleck said. “You’ve got to be able to make the play.”
Fleck gave Smith a public vote confidence as part of a meandering answer that included a straw man argument.
“I have 100 percent faith in every single one of our coaches,” Fleck said. “I’m the one that knows all of the internal things that we have to deal with every single day with what’s the program looking like internally. …
“We’re 3-4. I know we haven’t won a Big Ten game. But when you’re the youngest team in America and you think you’re just going to beat every team in the Big Ten and run the table? You guys [media] picked us 12th out of 14 in the Big Ten. I understand exactly where we’re at and I also understand where we’re going. There are so many things that are so positive that get lost in the big plays. But no excuses. It’s all on me.”
Come on, nobody predicted the Gophers to run the table. But optics matter. Progress is measured week to week. That was the case last week against Ohio State when the Gophers deserved praise by how they performed.
It wasn’t asking too much to expect the Gophers to be competitive a week later against a team that hadn’t won a game.