Iowa Football

Iowa football look ahead: You keep finding reasons not to like Minnesota's P.J. Fleck

But that doesn't mean the Gophers aren't poised to make some noise in the West

Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck leads the Golden Gophers onto the field at TCF Bank Stadium in Minnesapolis before a 2018 game. (USA TODAY Sports)
Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck leads the Golden Gophers onto the field at TCF Bank Stadium in Minnesapolis before a 2018 game. (USA TODAY Sports)
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You want to look for the box that P.J. Fleck arrived in. You want to stuff him back into it, throw a label on and return to sender. Maybe drop it a few times on the way to the mail.

 
But he’s also the coach that kept Minnesota viable in the last third of 2018. The Golden Gophers won three of their final four games. The run started with an attention-getting 41-10 whupping of Purdue. They lost by two scores to Northwestern and then unfurled one of the most important victories in recent Minnesota football history (maybe the last 20 years).

Fleck’s Gophers went into Camp Randall Stadium and played the Wisconsin Badgers off their feet, 37-15. After 15 years, Minnesota finally reclaimed Paul Bunyan’s Axe and might still be looking for things to fake chop down in Madison.

The “label” has never been difficult with Fleck, who’ll go into year three with 16 returning starters, a small army of proven running backs, top three receivers including Tyler Johnson (78 catches, 1,169 yards and 12 TDs), two QBs who have started games and a crossover schedule with the Big Ten East that includes Rutgers, Maryland and one toughie in Penn State.

Fleck is doing this his way. He has enthusiasm that rivals his players. You assume that works for him. It’s one way to connect.

It didn’t feel like improv when Fleck fired defensive coordinator Robb Smith last November. Fleck watched Illinois bombard the Gophers, 55-31. Illinois, a team that two weeks later would put up zero at home vs. Iowa, had 646 yards total offense, including 430 rushing yards, and five touchdowns that covered at least 30 yards.

Fleck did the hard thing. With three games left, he relieved Smith and promoted Joe Rossi. The very next week, Minnesota held Purdue to 10 points and won.

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Sudden change at a coordinator position, that shows coaching acumen. Maybe it was a gamble, but it’s “acumen” when it works.

This also shows a degree of resiliency, something Fleck’s Gophers had going in 2018. Running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks were lost for the year. It got down to freshman Mohamed Ibrahim. He finished a brilliant 1,169-yard season with a booming performance in the Gophers’ Quick Lane Bowl victory (224 yards, two TDs on 31 carries).

Fleck’s Gophers went through a QB change and injury last season. Zack Annexstad started the first seven games, but suffered a core injury. Tanner Morgan started the last seven. Last year, that was resiliency. It’ll be interesting to see if that becomes a headache for the Gophers in 2019.

Fleck is a man who’s perfectly comfortable making pitches for anything anywhere. That’s a tremendous skill. It keeps you in the game for recruits, facilities and everything else a Power Five college football coach needs.

Perhaps he overstepped last week when, in the wake of three kind of painful decommitments from the 2020 class, he said, “We have a problem in our society. We don’t have a problem in our program.”

Breaking: Programs are fallible. All of them. Probably refrain from telling the generation that you’re recruiting it’s the problem.

Fleck in summary: Pitch man extraordinaire. Football chops that are arguably functional and on schedule. Maybe he’s won over Gopher Nation or most or part of it. The rest of college football likely will continue to look for reasons not to like him.

And someone eventually will have the last laugh. Right now going into year three, Fleck and the Gophers are still in the running for that last laugh.

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Minnesota skill players

How long can the Gophers take to decide who’s QB?

This is just year three of Fleck. Certainly, his offense has been implemented, but you have to wonder how much “drawing it up in the dirt” went on with so many skill injuries last season.

Still, QB is a big thing. A great performer there probably makes the difference between contending in the West and the Quick Whatever Bowl.

Since we don’t know who, let’s ask did Annexstad and Morgan advance the cause last year? Passing yards went up (1,513 to 2,678), higher completion percentage (47.4 percent to 54.8 percent) and doubled passing touchdowns (nine to 18).

This might be a sneaky relevant storyline in the West.

Tyler Johnson is one of the Big Ten’s best wide receivers. He averaged 14.9 yards on 78 receptions last season.

Minnesota defense

Linebacker Carter Coughlin has a chance to be a big timer this season. The 6-4, 245-pound linebacker rang up 9.5 sacks for Minnesota last season, including a clean, one-on-one win vs. Iowa’s Alaric Jackson (Iowa didn’t allow a ton of sacks last year, so it stood out when it did).

Thomas Barber will be a three-year starter at middle linebacker, so the central nervous system of the defense should be sharp. Playmaking safety Antoine Winfield also returns after missing most of last season with a foot injury.

Super hot, possibly relevant take on this game that’s 100-something days away: OK, last year Fleck delivered Paul Bunyan’s Axe. After 15 years of futility, Minnesota finally beat Wisconsin in football. Remember when Iowa State did that against Iowa in 1998? The series has been basically even since (yes, Iowa is looking for its fifth straight this year, that’s still not 15).

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Minnesota hasn’t slapped Floyd of Rosedale’s bronze backside since 2014. Iowa could make it five in a row this season.

If Fleck wrangles this one? He probably buys himself a solid two or three years of bliss with the fan base. For the coach, that’s incentive.

Hawkeyes Look Ahead

Nov. 16 Minnesota at Kinnick Stadium

Week before: At Wisconsin

On the horizon: Illinois at Kinnick

For Minnesota

Week before: The Gophers play host to Penn State at TCF Bank Stadium.

On the horizon: Northwestern at Ryan Field (Evanston, Ill.)

Minnesota Golden Gophers

Game: Nov. 16 at Kinnick Stadium

Coach: P.J. Fleck (12-13, 3rd season at Minnesota)

2018 record: 7-6, 3-6 in Big Ten West Division (Quick Lane Bowl champions)

Scoring offense: 28.9 points per game (8th in B1G, 65th nationally — Nebraska was 58th at 30.0)

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Total offense: 379.6 yards per game (9th B1G, 86th nationally — Iowa was 92nd at 375.0)

Scoring defense: 26.5 points allowed per game (8th B1G, 59th nationally — USC was 64th at 27.0)

Total defense: 385.8 yards allowed per game (6th B1G, 54th nationally — Oregon was 55th at 385.9)

Series: It’s 62-48-2 Minnesota. Iowa is going for its fourth consecutive victory over the Gophers. Minnesota hasn’t won at Kinnick Stadium since 1999, Kirk Ferentz’s first season as Iowa’s head coach.

Last meeting: Iowa staked itself to a 28-17 halftime lead and dismantled Minnesota’s defense 48-31. This game is famous for the “swinging gate” fake field goal. Long snapper Jackson Subbert’s left-handed center pitch/snap to tight end T.J. Hockenson worked magnificently.

Super early, totally unofficial spread prediction: In the first nine weeks of the season, the Gophers’ toughest tests will be at Fresno State, at Purdue and Nebraska. Minnesota might have a shiny record going into this. Still, Iowa at Kinnick will at least be a -7.

l Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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