Schuttin' from the hip: If not for Mel Tucker, PJ Fleck would be the B1G Coach of the Year
Each week, Saturday Tradition managing editor Dustin Schutte offers his spin on what matters most in the B1G.
PJ Fleck’s best coaching job yet
A late-September loss to Bowling Green appeared to seal the fate of Minnesota’s 2021 season. Heading into October, the Gophers were no longer considered a threat in the B1G West. Sneaking into a bowl game seemed like the ceiling.
Quite a bit can change over the course of one month, can’t it?
Not only is Minnesota in the thick of a 3-team race to the finish line, it controls its fate. The Gophers sit at 6-2 with just 4 games remaining on the schedule. Every victory added to the total is one step closer to Indianapolis.
There’s still a month left, but through 8 games, there’s one key observation out of Minneapolis this year: PJ Fleck is doing his best work right now.
Perhaps Gordon Bombay should surrender that “Minnesota Miracle Man” moniker.
Minnesota’s 2019 season will continue to be the high-water mark in the Twin Cities. That squad finished with an 11-2 record, defeated No. 4 Penn State and proceeded to manhandle Auburn in the Outback Bowl. Fleck was named the B1G Coach of the Year after one of the greatest seasons the Gophers had enjoyed in decades.
Even with the loss to Bowling Green staining the résumé, the job Fleck has done in 2021 is better, at least to this point. Since dropping the 14-10 heartbreaker to the Falcons on Sept. 25, Minnesota has ripped off 4 straight victories with the only B1G loss coming to No. 5 Ohio State in the season-opener. It’s been enough to land the Gophers at No. 20 in the first College Football Playoff Poll.
Considering all that has transpired over the course of the year, it’s somewhat miraculous this team isn’t sitting at 2-6.
Minnesota lost reigning B1G Running Back of the Year Mohamed Ibrahim for the year in the Week 1 loss to Ohio State. Five Saturdays later, Trey Potts was ruled out for the season after suffering an undisclosed injury at the end of the Purdue game. Earlier this week, Fleck announced that Bryce Williams will miss the rest of the year following an injury against Northwestern.
Receivers Chris Autman-Bell, Dylan Wright and Daniel Jackson have combined to miss 5 games. Curtis Dunlap Jr., a fixture on the offensive line for a majority of the Fleck era, entered the transfer portal. Running back Cam Wiley hopped in, as well.
Fleck has channeled his inner Clark Griswold, patching the cracks inside the Hoover Dam with chewed-up bubble gum to stop the leaking. Unlike the strategy in Vegas Vacation, Fleck’s fix is proving much more effective.
It landed the head coach a well-deserved 7-year contract extension earlier this week.
Minnesota’s success has come because of a number of factors. The defense ranks No. 2 in the B1G against the rush, allowing just over 92 yards per game on the ground. Opponents are scoring less than 20 points per contest. In total defense, the Gophers rank No. 3 in the league, behind division rivals Wisconsin and Iowa.
On the offensive side, an offensive line that would rival a mountain range has paved the way for one of the most explosive rushing attacks in the country. Five running backs have exceeded the 100-yard mark this season — Ibrahim, Potts, Williams, Ky Thomas and Mar’Keise Irving. Even though Tanner Morgan isn’t as effective as he was 2 years ago under center, Autman-Bell, Wright and Mike Brown-Stephens have been legitimate threats at receiver.
To use a tired, old coaching cliché, it’s been a “total team effort” in the Twin Cities.
Glancing over Minnesota’s body of work and dismissing its success would be easy. While the Gophers have nice wins over Purdue and Maryland, there really isn’t a signature victory to date. They’ll get their chances, though.
The final month includes matchups against Illinois, No. 22 Iowa, Indiana and No. 21 Wisconsin. It’s easily the most difficult 4-game stretch of Minnesota’s season. But even wins in 2 of those games puts the record at 8-4 to close the regular season.
If not for Mel Tucker and Michigan State’s magical 8-0 start, Fleck might be on the way to his second B1G Coach of the Year award in 3 seasons.
A lot can happen over the course of one month. There’s still plenty of football to be played. Having Minnesota in a position to even think about the B1G Championship Game in November, considering all that’s gone wrong, is a direct reflection of Fleck, his coaching style and his culture.
It’s easily the best job he has done in his 5 seasons at Minnesota.
The IU offense should be Donaven McCulley’s to run
The keys belong to Donaven McCulley. Indiana’s freshman quarterback was thrust into the spotlight because of injuries to Michael Penix Jr. and Jack Tuttle, but after last weekend’s performance against Maryland, it’s clear that he needs to be the one driving the car.
McCulley got hist first career start in College Park, nearly leading the Hoosiers to a win over Maryland. With Penix and Tuttle sidelined, it was the former 4-star prospect out of Indianapolis who had a chance to rescue the Hoosiers.
It was far from perfect, but much closer than what we’d seen from Indiana earlier this season.
McCulley ended the game completing 14-of-25 passes for 242 yards with 2 touchdowns and 0 interceptions and 0 lost fumbles.
The result was still a 38-35 loss, a game Indiana needed to win for bowl eligibility purposes. But there were still some positives to take away from the trip to College Park. Most notably, IU’s offense scored 4 touchdowns after being held to just 2 through the first 4 games against B1G opponents.
McCulley demonstrated some mobility, something lacking from Penix and Tuttle, giving the Hoosiers at least something dynamic from the quarterback position. The run game benefited and proved to be more of a threat. In general, it just … looked better.
Part of that is because of Maryland’s defense. Though improved, it still ranks 12th in the B1G in yards allowed and 13th in points surrendered. The Hoosiers were bound to have some success.
Saturday’s game against No. 7 Michigan — with one of the top defenses in the conference — is a much different challenge.
At this point in the year, though, IU has banged its head against the wall repeatedly trying to figure out a solution for an immobile offense. Until Saturday’s trip to College Park, nothing worked.
McCulley’s time under center did.
Bowl eligibility is essentially out of the question. It’s time for Tom Allen and the Hoosiers to start looking ahead to the future. Even if Penix and Tuttle return from injury in the final month of the season, the keys shouldn’t be ripped out of McCulley’s hand.
There will be some bumps in the road. He’s going to endure some growing pains. The more McCulley learns now, the better Indiana’s offense will be in the future.
Even at 3-6, Scott Frost continues to believe
Scott Frost admits it’s difficult to ignore. As Nebraska sits at 3-6 with an incredibly challenging stretch ahead, the whispers of job security have surfaced. Unfortunately, that’s life in major college football.
As the Huskers prepare for a 3-game gauntlet against No. 5 Ohio State, No. 21 Wisconsin and No. 20 Iowa, Frost has put on the earmuffs and blinders. His only focus?
During his weekly press conference, Frost was asked if he’s heard the swirling rumors about his job status with bowl eligibility slipping away for a 4th consecutive season under his guidance. In an honest response, the head coach said it’s impossible to get away from all the outside chatter. He’s doing his best to avoid it.
“I owe it to the kids to give them my everything. So do the coaches, and we are,” Frost said. “And the kids are giving us everything they got right back because of our relationship.”
Throughout that presser, Frost continued to reference how close this team has been all season. All 6 of Nebraska’s losses have come in 1-possession games.
Frost wants Adrian Martinez to experience that game-winning moment. He wants his players to pull through in those clutch moments. He wants to win for Nebraska.
Even at 3-6, it’s clear that Frost hasn’t given up on this season or his players. Even 1 victory in this final 3-game stretch could make all the difference for a program that has been knocking on the door all year.
No. 5 Ohio State vs. Nebraska: The Huskers’ defense has answered the call all season, but the Buckeyes’ offense is an entirely different monster. Even if Nebraska is able to keep the Ohio State offense in check, can it avoid pivotal mistakes on the offensive side against a defense that has scored a touchdown in 6 games this year? That might be the more important question.
Illinois vs. No. 20 Minnesota: Opponents have had incredible difficulty slowing down Minnesota’s rushing attack, even without Mo Ibrahim and Trey Potts. Illinois’ run defense has been pretty bad, ranking 12th in the B1G this season. Even though the Gophers are down a third running back, Ky Thomas and Mar’Keise Irving have each hit the 100-yard mark this fall. If the Illini can’t slow down the Gophers on the ground, they won’t have a chance to pull the upset.
No. 3 Michigan State vs. Purdue: What is Michigan State’s mentality after an emotional and exhausting win over Michigan last weekend? That might be the key to whether the Spartans stick around in the Top 4 of the College Football Playoff rankings or stub their toe against Purdue. Plus, the Boilermakers have been known to pull off an upset or two under Jeff Brohm.
No. 21 Wisconsin vs. Rutgers: The Badgers have not allowed an offense to score more than 1 touchdown in its past 3 games against Illinois, Purdue and Iowa. Rutgers has not scored more than 20 points against a B1G foe. How are the Scarlet Knights going to move the ball on an elite Wisconsin defense? That’s what Greg Schiano has to figure out — and fast.
Penn State vs. Maryland: If Sean Clifford is still full strength, Penn State’s offense should be in much better shape against a Maryland defense that has been pretty suspect in recent weeks. The Terrapins need to play mistake-free football against one of the better defensive teams they’ve seen this season. Turnovers will be key in Saturday’s matchup.
No. 22 Iowa vs. Northwestern: The goal for Iowa should be to run the ball as much as possible and limit the number of throws Spencer Petras makes. Northwestern has shown no ability to stop any rushing attack. Tyler Goodson should see a large number of carries for the Hawkeyes. If the Wildcats can figure out a way to force Iowa into passing situations, they’ll have a much better chance to win.
Indiana vs. No. 7 Michigan: A battle in the trenches that could get really ugly. On both sides. Michigan’s defensive line is much better than Indiana’s offensive line, which is going to make life difficult for the Hoosiers offensively. This is also going to be a very angry Wolverines team coming off a rivalry loss. Michigan may try to prove a point.
Illinois (+14.5) vs. Minnesota
Jumping on Minnesota as a 14.5-point favorite might be easy to do after its past 2 performances. The Golden Gophers posted a 34-16 victory over Maryland and a 41-14 win over Northwestern. Against a 3-6 Illinois team that ranks 12th in the B1G at defending the run, it might feel like easy money.
Four of Illinois’ 6 losses have come in 1-possession games, though. The Fighting Illini posted an upset win on the road against Penn State just a few weeks ago. Bret Bielema’s team can be pretty feisty.
Minnesota should be able to improve to 7-2 this season, but the Gophers won’t beat the Illini by 15 points. Take Illinois and the points.