The sun shone, having no alternative, on nothing new. – Samuel Beckett, “Murphy”
In the early hours of what was for me August 30th, 2019 I boarded a KLM flight in Abu Dhabi, planning to spend a good portion of my flight watching the Gophers mopping up South Dakota State. I had made all the preparations to live-stream the game on my tablet, with one exception: I forgot that the flight didn’t have WiFi. When I reached my layover in Amsterdam I was so confident in the result I found a restroom, coffee, a stroopwafel, and a comfortable seat before checking the score. 28-21 hit me with an intensity that belied by jet-lagged brain.
I was also away during the Fresno State game and didn’t have to suffer that tight overtime victory in real-time. It wasn’t until September 14th I attended a game in person, vs. Georgia Southern. I spent the beautiful afternoon gripped by the sense of impending doom familiar to all Gopher fans, simultaneously relieved and horrified (relorrified?) to come away with the 35-32 last-drive victory. Walking back to the River Flats a friend observed I was lucky to only have had to see this once.
The rest of the 2019 season salved those wounds, but in times of quiet reflection since I sometimes slip back to how different things could have been starting 1-2 instead of 3-0.
So confident was I that Saturday’s game against Bowling Green State would be one of frustrating Tressel-ball that I started writing this nearly 2 weeks ago and picked the opening quote at that time. P.J. Fleck’s pre-season pattern has become clear: conservative, clock-grinding ball control wherein the final score doesn’t matter as long as you come away with a win and don’t show your cards. That means few double-digit beatdowns, it means media snark, and it means you’re always flying close enough to the sun that one touchdown can change everything.
Close non-conference matchups against inferior opponents are nothing new for any Gopher fan born later than 1950. Devastating losses against them are nothing new for anyone who remembers Jim Wacker and Tim Brewster. Those were materially different because the overall hopelessness was pretty clear, but if Miami (OH) showed us anything it was that the risk is always there.
Saturday the inevitable happened. The defense did their jobs, allowing 2 touchdowns and holding Bowling Green to under 200 yards. But in a game where our supposedly NFL-bound offensive line never got consistent push, Tanner Morgan was frequently pressured and threw poorly even when not, when wide receivers couldn’t get separation, when special teams reverted to their prior form, it would take inspired coaching to make sure the defense had done enough.
What we saw instead confirmed every whispered fear and written media criticism of the staff. There can be no question that the team and their coaches were not prepared to face even a MAC team projected to finish at or near the bottom of their conference. Our propensity for playing down to the level of our opponent has been one of the most consistent and frustrating features of the Fleck era.
It remains in P.J. Fleck’s power to fix. He has previously shown the willingness to make drastic player and staff decisions that change the course of the season. I firmly believe that is needed again. The co-offensive coordinator situation between Matt Simons and Mike Sanford Jr. which never made much sense to begin with, must be resolved. Based on prior performance, it’s hard to reach any other conclusion than that Mike Sanford Jr. holds a lot of the responsibility. The 4th and 1 in which we came out of a timeout with a run-up-the-middle play (that may well have worked without the timeout) was a fireable offense. More questions than answers remain for Rob Wenger at Special Teams.
Fleck himself may be tired of repeatedly having to accept publicly that the responsibility is 100% his. He needs to take action to show that this is more than lip service. There is a reason that high-tier programs make a habit of turning G5 non-conference games into snoozers. Games like this simply cannot happen for a coach whose stated goals include conference championships and playoff appearances. What role if any was played by USC is speculation, but if there was any smoke it’s gone now. Not worth discussing.
Fleck has done much more good than harm in building talent, culture, and interest. Late 2018 and 2019 showed that when motivated, organized, and willing to take risks he can perform. Our individual and team talent is sufficiently high to salvage a successful 2021 season, such that this eventually becomes remembered like the 2018 Illinois game as a much-needed wake-up call. I fear that the difference this time is that changing out coordinators isn’t enough: he will need to look his own game philosophy in the eye and consider whether his own approach is up to the challenge of the times.
Whether that happens or not is entirely in P.J. Fleck’s hands. Until he provides an alternative, it's nothing new.