It's time for Minnesota to go all-in on big picture
MINNEAPOLIS — At least their helmets looked cool.
With the University of Minnesota’s signature block “M” on one side and a full-bodied Goldy Gopher swooping across the other, Minnesota’s gold buckets glistened under the lights Friday on another cold, dark late-fall night in the Twin Cities.
It might have been the sharpest facet of the Golden Gophers’ latest output.
“I think our whole football team was inconsistent,” coach P.J. Fleck said after his team’s 35-7 loss to hated Iowa. “Offense, defense, special teams.”
Sometimes, a season gone wrong is nuanced. Not in this case. Fleck couldn’t have encapsulated it any more accurately.
Minnesota can’t stop anyone. Their offense hasn’t been allowed to find a rhythm as a result. Even when it does, mistakes keep getting in the way. Kicking and kick coverage has been subpar.
This just isn’t a very good football team right now.
Neither are the teams that have beaten the Gophers. Michigan might have a head coach on the way out the door. Maryland has been better than advertised but still has plenty of flaws. Same with Iowa, who passed for only 111 yards Friday night and have an average offense at best.
In 2019, Minnesota showed what they’re capable of. In 2020, Minnesota is showing what they’re capable of.
There are going to be abundant and lean years around here, based on recruiting cycles, schedules and what’s going on around the rest of the B1G West. It’s aggravating to think what might’ve been if COVID-19 never existed and a Gophers team coming off its first 11-win season in more than a century had a nonconference slate to break in a young, inexperienced defense and a new offense under coordinator Mike Sanford Jr.
But there’s no crying in battling COVID, and its equal threat to all college football teams — and human beings, for that matter — means there are no excuses.
“It’s a pretty tough start,” cornerback Coney Durr said. “A lot of guys haven’t been in this position before.
“The season’s not over. We got 4 more games.”
That’s 5 if you count the to-be-determined divisional crossover opponent during the league’s championship weekend next month.
Which is why Fleck has been right to rotate a ton of different players as this season continues to go south. We’re not advocating for completely punting on the year, but at 1-3 with no shot at a division crown and a free year of eligibility for the entire roster, there’s little reason for this staff to keep the reins on anyone.
No tanking. Just pure, open competition at every position — even quarterback, where Tanner Morgan isn’t quite the same guy who ranked among FBS’ top passers last season.
Find out which guys really love football, regardless of their place on the depth chart. More who emulate running back Mohamed Ibrahim, who has to be the sorest man in the Cities after another yeoman’s effort Friday — 33 carries for 144 yards, and he was somehow running just as hard on tote No. 33, with the game well out of reach, as he had on his 1st run of the night.
At one point Friday, 6 freshmen were on the field on defense. Twenty-five names showed up on the defensive participation report.
Good. More of that.
More cats like defensive lineman Rashad Cheney Jr., who had a couple of big stops and gummed up gaps in some of his 1st meaningful action.
Because it’s not a destination for 4- and 5-star recruits, Minnesota will ultimately contend via identifying players who fit Fleck’s culture and system then developing them into stars. Defensive end Boye Mafe is a perfect example.
Four Gophers went from playing defense at TCF Bank Stadium last fall to the NFL this season. That’s a testament to Minnesota’s identity as a “developmental program,” as Fleck calls it.
But here’s something to keep in mind: Fleck didn’t recruit any of those guys. Signees who came to play for Fleck are just now starting to see playing time.
And there’s no better way to bring them along than to throw them into the fire.
Memorable rhetoric and masterful branding have helped Fleck get to this point. But nothing builds culture like competition and resulting depth.
Mixing things up can give the saplings invaluable game reps. It also pushes any veterans who might be entertaining the notion of slacking with hopes of better days in 2021.
It’s not in Morgan’s nature to do anything of the sort. But he knows what the answer is, both for the rest of this season and into the coming ones.
“We have to keep responding,” Morgan said. “That’s what this culture’s about, and that’s what we’re gonna do.”