Sunday, November 7, 2021

What The Ostrich Sees in the Sand

Any fool can turn a blind eye but who knows what the ostrich sees in the sand. -Samuel Beckett, “Murphy”

The excitement of P.J. Fleck’s 7 year extension didn’t so much fade over the weekend as it was doused with bleach. I’ve tried hard to bury the fatalism I’ve lived with since the Bowl. It’s getting harder to lie to myself; the big new paycheck combined with Brett Bielema’s return to Minneapolis gave this all the makings of a trap game, and it delivered. 

I observed after Bowling Green that Fleck needed to do more than just take responsibility for the loss. Better performance over the month of October had better results, but I’m hard-pressed to point to specific actions beyond “we looked more focused and prepared”. When Illinois went up 14-0 and our answer was four possessions and zero points, we all knew where this was headed.

So, in the spirit of phoning in offensive coaching against a motivated underdog with nothing to lose, the rest of this post is an edit of my Bowling Green assessment. I removed some sections; you can find the whole thing here. I assume my efforts in redactions and editing are commensurate or superior to the effort our offensive coaching staff put in to out-scheming the Illinois gameplan.  

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 interception can change everything.

Saturday the inevitable happened again. The defense did their jobs, allowing 2 touchdowns and holding Bowling Green Illinois to under 200 275 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) continued insistence on running the play clock down to 2 even as we were running out of time in the 4th Quarter was a fireable offense. More questions than answers remain for Rob Wenger at Special Teams, questions such as how he managed to ruin Matthew Trickett, whose Field Goal efficiency has dropped 23.7% compared to a career 82.4% average at Kent State.

Fleck himself may be tired of repeatedly having to accept publicly that the responsibility is 100% his (a situation perhaps eased by his new paycheck). 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 Illinois games into snoozers. Games like this simply cannot happen (twice in the same season!) 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 2021 Bowling Green game as a much-needed wake-up call. I fear that the difference this time is that changing out coordinators isn’t enough, though it’s a good start: 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.

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