Let’s get the nasty part out of the way first. The two losses that marred an otherwise incredible season for Minnesota shared a handful of features in common. Minnesota was out-schemed by teams that comprehended the Gopher’s strengths and weaknesses and schemed to put points on the board quickly. Minnesota also called a conservative offensive game that got away from many of the facets that made its offense so successful earlier in the season, making uncharacteristic decisions (a 50-yard FG attempt against Iowa and a punt from the 35 yard line against Wisconsin, both early in the game). Offensive line injuries compounded the challenge of mounting a comeback and magnified the effect of other mystifying decisions such as multiple running calls against Wisconsin from 3rd and long. For whatever reason, whether the intimidation of the big stage, distraction of national media attention, or old-fashioned nerves, the Minnesota that owned most of the game against Penn State was mostly absent.
Ironically, the seeds of these losses were sown in the first three games on the Gopher’s schedule this season. The non-conference slate was uncomfortably close against three teams that went a collective 19-17. I shared frustration with many fans coming out of those games with the maddeningly conservative offensive play calling that seemed to be calculated to not-lose and just barely did enough. When the offense opened up in the Purdue game and led to five straight conference thrashings it appeared clear that this had been a conscious decision by our coaching staff. The streak continued into the Penn State game allowing the Gophers to build a nice lead and positioned the defense to fend off a late-game push. Ironically, when faced with the two most critical games on the schedule, Minnesota returned to its non-con comfort zone and played not to lose, with predictable results.
How you feel about things coming out of this depends in part on your expectations for the program. The majority opinion that seems to be developing is that the losses to Iowa and Wisconsin sting badly, but a 10-2 season is a huge accomplishment and the trajectory of the program appears to be pointing up. However I’ve heard several people say they would be happy to go 2-10 if the 2 were Iowa and Wisconsin, or that a 10-2 finish is meaningless when the losses are those teams. Both points of view are legitimate opinions; one is mostly informed by the past, the other by the future. If you’re in the latter group, I’m going to try to convince you to take a different view.
Defining our program’s success solely on the basis of performance against our rivals is in my mind a tacit admission that those goals are unobtainable and that holding a rivalry trophy for a while is the highest achievement possible. Since 1962 that’s been largely true, so I understand why people prioritize it. I think that it’s a point of view that’s focused on the past, and just as likely to set yourself up for disappointment as focusing on the future, if not more so.
Rivalry games are part of what makes college football great. They build an important narrative and shared history that is part of what makes me prefer the college game to the pros. But at the end of the day they’re still a means to an end. That end is building a program with potential for sustained success, consistent competition, and national recognition. In the lead-up to the 2020 season our local media yokels might remember the Wisconsin game, but the national media and recruits will remember 10-2.
Thing is, like it or not Iowa and Wisconsin are good. They might not be at their peaks, but they also aren’t showing any signs of pulling a Nebraska and fading to the rear of the pack. If you’re not building a program for something beyond two specific games every year, the likelihood is that those two games aren’t going to play out how you want them to as long as those teams aren’t only focusing on you. If you want to beat them regularly, you’re going to need to be beating other teams regularly too, so you might as well start thinking about success holistically.
Given that, where are we now? We’ve got 10 wins and a chance at 11. I’ve never ascribed to the “but 9 wins!” defense of Tracy Claeys, and I can tell you that my level of confidence right now is multiple levels above where it was at the end of 2016. We are witnessing the greatest quarterback in Minnesota history, and he’s only a sophomore despite his CPA-like bearing. In 2019 he led the big Ten in passing yards (2,975), yards/attempt (10.3), yards/game (247.9), and was second only in passing touchdowns (28). Rashod Bateman and Tyler Johnson were first and second, respectively, in the Big Ten in receiving yards (1,170 and 1,114) and touchdowns (tied with Chris Olave from Ohio State at 11), and Bateman was second in yards/attempt at 20.5. We beat an AP Top 10 team at home, took home 2* rivalry trophies (I still count The Chair…I have *opinions* on Nebraska) and didn’t drop any gimme games. We sniffed the Big Ten title for the first time since 1967. These were all borderline unthinkable in 2016, let alone for them all to happen together.
Despite rush game challenges, Rodney Smith finished third in the Big Ten in yards at 1,094. Antoine Winfield Jr. led the Big Ten in interceptions with 7. Minnesota still has opportunities for growth at the linebacker and defensive line positions and needs more depth at offensive line, notoriously one of the most difficult positions to build. Special Teams has been the sole consistently bad spot.
This brings me to the coaching staff. The Iowa and Wisconsin games were largely lost on coaching decisions. That they both came on the heels of weeks filled with large publicity (post Penn State win and College Game Day leadup) is probably not coincidence. In reflecting on the first of those losses I noted P.J. Fleck’s apparent fatigue. Should this lead us to question their fitness for the role or ability to overcome these challenges?
Absolutely not. In 2018 P.J. Fleck proved his willingness to make difficult coaching decisions to address a problem by firing long-time friend Robb Smith when his defense was failing. Also in 2018 at Wisconsin and again in 2019 vs. Penn State he proved that he does have the ability to win the big game even if he needs to add some consistency. Our record progression from 5-7 to 7-6 to 10-2 (with 1 more game to come) shows immense progress. Notably, only one Gopher coach since Bernie Bierman has the same winning percentage in his first 3 seasons and that was Murray Warmath. He’s already won.
Why, then, would it be unthinkable that P.J. Fleck and his coaching staff won’t be able to apply the lessons of the past several weeks along with further player growth and strong recruiting in 2020 and beyond? Why assume after decades of relative futility against Iowa and Wisconsin that a year they represented our only 2 losses means the season is a failure? The conclusion to me is opposite of that: Minnesota has developed immensely and it’s close…closer than it’s been in living memory…to taking the next step. Trophy wins will be part of that, but they’re not the only part.
I refuse to be disappointed by this season. The losses sucked and winning either one of them would have placed us firmly in the Rose Bowl. That said, it’s only the third time in my fanhood we’ve even been able to talk with any seriousness about Rose Bowls, and technically that door isn’t even closed yet. The closeness of this season is part of what makes that so bitter, but I choose to focus on the promise of what’s coming. It’s another lesson for our players and coaches that we need to be true to who we are and not try to play to the opponent. Until proven otherwise, I believe it’s a lesson we will learn.