P.J. Fleck would be the first to tell you he’s not exactly a sympathetic case.

“I’m not for everyone,” the Minnesota coach often says with an ear-to-ear grin.

But even the coldest-hearted Wisconsin or Iowa fan, if he or she really digs deep, has to feel for what the Golden Gophers have been through this season.

By all accounts, they’ve followed COVID-19 protocols. Yet the outbreak that impacted more than 40 players and staff and sliced two games off their schedule is among the FBS’s worst.

They were down more than 20 members of the roster when they beat Purdue back on Nov. 20, the last time Minnesota took the field. They will be again Saturday when they travel to Lincoln to take on Nebraska.

“This year has been a constant balance and very different than other years, because normal years we’re talking about now and now only,” Fleck said Monday. “But there’s this transparency and honesty that’s been talked about. Not only does whatever we’re doing now effect now against Nebraska and two weeks from now, it also effects 2021 because the year is eligible for everyone to come back and you don’t want to ignore that, either.”

Far be it from us, who aren’t on campus or at practices, to clown on any program for suffering an outbreak. It’s COVID.

But we can judge what we’ve seen on the field, and if there are 5 decisions Fleck would like back this year, they’d be something along the lines of the following.

1. More dudes on ‘D’

You can’t blame a head coach for losing four defensive starters to the NFL and having to replace a plethora of talent at all three levels. But he is responsible for identifying who can fill some of those responsibilities, and between lack of preparation due to COVID-19 and general inexperience across the board, Minnesota’s defense has been possibly the Big Ten’s worst. You can look at scheme, you can look at circumstance, or you can just look at the athletes. The Gophers aren’t yet recruiting at a level where they’re able to plug-and-play on a year-to-year basis, and until they are, they’re going to have duds of seasons mixed in with magical ones like their 11-win 2019 campaign.

2. Take a closer look at takeaways

It’s not that Minnesota doesn’t emphasize turnovers and havoc plays during practice. But its 3 interceptions are tied for ninth in the B1G, and the Gophers have recovered just one fumble all season. When you can’t rely on your defense to provide consistent stops, the next best thing is momentum-turning takeaways. Antoine Winfield Jr. was the king of those. Minnesota needs more ball hawks.

3. Overtime out east

When you get the ball on the second possession of overtime and score to come within a point of tying, the impending decision is often taxing. Kick the ball and keep playing OT, or go for 2 and thus the win?

It shouldn’t have been a tough choice for Fleck on Oct. 30. A backup kicker recovering from sports hernia surgery, or a Wildcat quarterback who can pretty much fall forward and score from 2 yards out if the line gets half a push up front — who are you picking? If you don’t recall, Minnesota decided to kick — and missed it to lose 45-44 to Maryland.

Minnesota is that far away from a 3-2 record — which in 2020 is a heck of a lot different than 2-3.

4. Limping to the finish

During the first three quarters of games, Minnesota averages 25 points. The final period? 3.8. The Gophers’ lack of finish allowed Maryland to come back and beat them and Michigan to breeze to a comfortable victory in Week 1.

“We’ve got to be more balanced,” Fleck said. “I think that’s where I’ve learned based on this football team. We got to be more balanced and finish the game on offense. Listen, this isn’t something our players don’t know. They know we’ve got to finish on offense when we get an opportunity, because when we’ve won really big games, we’ve been able to. When it’s been close, we haven’t been able to do that.”

5. Week 1 rewind

That season opener under the eerie Friday Night Lights at TCF Bank Stadium looks quite agonizing in retrospect. A 49-24 loss to Michigan to start the season certainly wasn’t in Fleck’s plans, but it looks way worse now that Michigan is 2-4 with a divided, angry fan base. Can you imagine if Minnesota hadn’t come out so flat and then finished a week later at Maryland? This season could look a lot different.

But that’s the game, COVID or no COVID. The good news is the Gophers’ young defense will return a load of game experience next year. Stud quarterback Tanner Morgan should be back, too, and hopefully a more normal season of preparation for a program that needs all the advantages it can get will be feasible by this summer.