Minnesota football: One week into weird 2020 season, Fleck's fears are already being realized
MINNEAPOLIS — An eerie ring of pure darkness surrounded the bright lights of TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday night.
It’s the same thing that happens when you’re camping and shine a flashlight into the night. The human eye emphasizes the contrast between light and dark to the point it’s darkest where the two meet.
Downtown Minneapolis was a relative ghost town. Same with the University of Minnesota’s Dinkytown campus. Snowmen were melting throughout the Twin Cities. Inside the Golden Gophers’ home hole, the stadium lights bounced strangely off of empty seats, cardboard cutouts and a smattering of family and friends lucky enough to make it through the gates. College GameDay came in live from a mostly empty campus on a cold, dreary Saturday morning. B1G commissioner Kevin Warren sat in a suite, mask on face, and watched the final game of an opening weekend he at one point announced was never going to happen.
And the bane of an entire planet’s existence continues to manifest itself on one more college football field this fall.
It was strange enough to open the season here, this weekend, a week before Halloween during an apparent early winter arrival. Layered in with the Big Ten’s canceled-then-reinstated fall football season were tributes to the late 100-year-old local legend/sports columnist Sid Hartman and attempts at raising awareness in the same community that helped spark this year’s racial unrest with the killing of George Floyd.
In terms of football, the cold, dark reality of 2020 hit hard when No. 21 Minnesota’s kickoffs began sailing short and sky-high, 18th-ranked Michigan’s pass rush rattled oft-unshakeable quarterback Tanner Morgan, and the Wolverines gashed an inexperienced defense on the ground en route to its 49-24 win.
Gophers coach P.J. Fleck didn’t come out and say his starting kicker, kickoff man and punter came down with COVID-19. But he didn’t have to.
“I’m not going get into specifics of why they missed the game, but you can probably imagine,” said Fleck, whose program hasn’t claimed the Little Brown Jug in three tries dating back to 2014 when Jerry Kill was still the man in charge. “It kind of hit the specialists pretty hard, and they hit them at different times. If somebody ever tests positive, they got to be out three weeks. So they could be a week apart, three days apart, two weeks apart, but it still gets you for three weeks.”
Minnesota was also down two starting offensive linemen and a starting linebacker due to undisclosed conditions. Guard Curtis Dunlap Jr. was seen on the sideline in a leather jacket and a pink hard cast on his right foot, and tackle Daniel Faalele had been rumored to be nursing a possible injury and didn’t play.
Also out was projected starting linebacker Braelen Oliver, who suffered an injury during the spring.
Attrition wasn’t the only contributor to Minnesota’s woes in its latest-ever season opener; 8.2 yards per rush and an elusive pass rush from Michigan took care of a lot.
But this wasn’t the group Fleck was planning to ride with in pursuit of matching or topping last year’s 11-win season that culminated with an Outback Bowl win over Auburn and had Minnesota a win from playing for the B1G championship.
Then again, the Gophers coach warned this was likely.
“It’s no excuses whatsoever,” Fleck said. “I mean, it’s 2020. Everybody’s playing with what you have.”
Backup Brock Walker, whom Fleck said is still recovering from sports hernia surgery, filled in for placekicker Michael Lantz and kickoff specialist Grant Ryerse. Third-string kicker Dragan Kesich was also out with COVID-19.
The Wolverines’ aggressive decisions to return Walker’s pooch kicks paid off, especially when Michael Barrett returned a 39-yard kick 66 yards to the Gophers 8.
That set up an easy pass from Joe Milton to Ben Mason that put Michigan up 21-10 heading into the second quarter.
Punter Mark Crawford was out with COVID-19, too. Reserve Matthew Stephenson’s first two punts went 31 and 18 yards. So Fleck’s lack of confidence in the graduate transfer, walk-on punter caused him to call a fake from the Gophers 31.
H-back Ko Kieft was stuffed for a 2-yard loss, and Michigan used the short field to go up 35-17 on a 4-yard run by Hassan Haskins.
Minnesota won a handful of games last year in spite of special-teams gaffes. And while it wasn’t quite all doom-and-gloom Saturday — Walker nailed a 34-yard field goal, and the Gophers blocked a punt in the first quarter — losing all three starting legs isn’t a good sign.
Minnesota’s offensive line depth was tested, too. Running back Mohamed Ibrahim ran for 140 yards and 2 touchdowns, but the Gophers netted 129 yards on the ground and were befuddled by the Wolverines’ disguised coverages and shifty blitzes.
Never was that more evident than when Michael Barrett flew around the edge untouched and popped Morgan for a fumble that flew right into the arms of defensive lineman Donovan Jeter, who then rumbled for a 15-yard score.
Morgan wasn’t quite himself most of the night, finishing 18-of-37 for 197 yards, a touchdown and an interception.
“I just have to be better,” Morgan said. “It’s my fault, not anybody else’s. It’s me.”
On the other side of the ball, Jim Harbaugh’s bunch racked up 253 yards rushing thanks to a) two-back sets that put Minnesota’s defense, which had to replace seven starters from last season, on its heels and b) often running right at true freshman linebacker Cody Lindenberg, who started in Oliver’s stead.
The situation that unfolded Saturday pointed to the Gophers’ need to continue increasing their recruiting profile. As good as Minnesota was last year, Fleck was quick to admit they’re not as deep as they need to be to sustain long-term success.
Michigan exposed the heck out of that.
The Gophers also don’t have the luxury of working out kinks in nonconference games. Minnesota’s ability to do so last year created early momentum en route to their first 11-win season since 1904.
This time, it’s about responding. Minnesota heads to Maryland for a Friday night tilt after a short week of practice, suddenly toting a thin margin for error if they hope to compete in the B1G West again this year.
“It’s one game,” Morgan said. “The sky hasn’t fallen on the season or anything. It’s one game. We’ve got to be better; we will be better.”