Minnesota football final grades for 2020 season: Pandemic-induced growing pains, but hope for 2021
Among Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck’s many platitudes is the notion of living in the moment and not allowing external factors to dictate what happens inside the walls of Athletes Village. “Never let the circumstances dictate your behavior” has been a common refrain around the program as it’s dealt with COVID-19, youth at key positions and a season they’ll consider disappointing in Dinkytown but in fact could’ve been a lot worse.
But even the part-coach, part-motivational speaker, part-filibustering politician admitted he had to live somewhat of a dual life inside his highly caffeinated mind this year.
“This is the first year I’ve ever talked about two years at once,” Fleck said Saturday after his team’s overtime loss against Wisconsin. “It’s impossible not to. You have 30 kids out and then they are out three weeks and you are talking about one final game they get to play in, or two, or whatever it is. You better give hope (to players) for the future, especially with all these people going certain places, transferring, leaving, going here, going there.
“They better know you are going to be a really good football team next year, and I think we are going to be a really good football team next year.”
That’s the trade-off that comes with playing more than half a jumbled, Big Ten-only season with a depleted roster. While Minnesota’s 3-4 finish is nowhere near the euphoric 11-win experience in 2019, there were bright spots and opportunities for accelerated development.
That can be a big advantage in a program that goes after a lot of 3-star and 2-star recruits and seeks to build them into contributors.
But it also exposed some weaknesses. Players with experience coming back doesn’t guarantee progress.
With all this in mind, we hand out final grades now that the Golden Gophers have passed up on the opportunity to go bowling.
Fleck made some strange in-game decisions — not going for 2 in overtime against Maryland — and didn’t appear to have his team ready to rock out of the gate against Michigan. The B1G’s worst defense shows he and his staff have a ways to go in terms of recruiting now that stars brought in by the previous regime have moved on to the NFL.
But if there was ever any doubt about Fleck’s ability to create a family-like culture where everyone’s on the same page, his team’s moxie during pandemic college football should erase it.
From enduring an outbreak of more than 40 players and staff to beating Nebraska down 33 athletes, Minnesota showed upper-echelon unity and devotion to its craft despite playing in front of empty stadiums with not much of a carrot following a couple early-season losses. That’s a credit to the environment Fleck has created.
Tanner Morgan is a fantastic human being. He’s also his own harshest critic. So the fact that he regressed in 2020 likely isn’t lost on him.
Morgan went from one of the top passers in FBS to the fifth-most efficient QB in his own conference. His completion percentage dropped from 66 percent in 2019 to 57.9 this season. His passer rating dropped 50 points from 178.7 to 128.2. He threw almost as many interceptions (5) in seven games as he did in 13 games last season (7).
Good luck finding a more motivated senior heading into 2021.
Running game: A
Mohamed. Ibrahim. That is all.
In seriousness, the B1G running back of the year was a man all season, ranking third in FBS with 154 yards per game. He did a lot on his own, but credit goes to an offensive line that was often of the patchwork variety. Two projected starters missed the entire season, and a handful of underclassmen stepped into key roles to open holes for Ibrahim.
But the 5-10, 210-pound Baltimore native met his goal of carrying the torch of top-notch running backs at Minnesota. If he were to make the surprising decision to return for another year, he’d be the top candidate to lead the nation in rushing next year.
Morgan and this offense miss Tyler Johnson, and now Rashod Bateman, who didn’t play in the final two games. Even Bateman, for all his talent, didn’t make as many big plays with more defenses keyed on him.
That was expected. Chris Autman-Bell proved a great downfield threat, averaging almost 20 yards per reception.
But the Gophers were thin behind those two, who accounted for more than half the team’s receptions. Daniel Jackson, Mike Brown-Stephens and others showed flashes, but a spring and summer of growth will be imperative if Morgan hopes to have a good mix of potential targets in 2021.
Offensive line: B-
Great work by a revolving-door group to pave the way for Ibrahim.
Pass protection could use some work, though. Minnesota allowed 13 sacks, which ranked seventh in the 14-team B1G.
Passing defense: B-
For all the Gophers’ struggles on defense, they weren’t as vulnerable through the air as you might think.
Minnesota’s 208.7 yards per game ranked sixth in the league — right between division foes Iowa, which is ranked 17th in the AP poll, and Nebraska, which had one of the more improved defenses in the country this year.
Cornerback Benjamin St-Juste has declared for the NFL draft, but Coney Durr (arguably the better of the two) is coming back to lead an experienced secondary. This should be a position of strength next season.
Run defense: D
Ouch. This is the No. 1 reason the Gophers finished the regular season 70th nationally in total defense. With an inexperienced front seven and linebackers who too often couldn’t fill gaps properly, Minnesota gave up 207 yards per game — 101st in FBS.
This would’ve been an F if not for the season’s final couple weeks. The Gophers did show improvement against Nebraska, which puzzlingly decided to pass often on a windy day in Lincoln, and Wisconsin, which was missing several players due to its own COVID breakout.
Final GPA: 2.0
When grading on the COVID-19 curve, Minnesota had what amounts to an average season. Some good, some bad, ultimately no sterling results.
But a kid pulling Cs in advanced math as a sophomore still has a chance to put his head down and get to cum laude honors by the time he’s a senior. That’s the challenge facing the Gophers — can they take advantage of the experience gained during a weird year and parlay it into B1G West contention?