Thursday, October 26, 2023

Pretzel Logic

It’s been a fun week in Gopher fandom. Every day the Michigan message boards creep towards clarity. Michigan State’s athletics department capped off an impressive run of incompetence that started in 2018 by putting an Austrian on their jumbotron. Rutgers is bowl eligible. Oh, and Minnesota beat Iowa.

Douglas Fir and Frothy Gopher have already put on their NBC gear to explore the Chernobylization of the Iowa fanbase. Personally, I was so sure that the curse would not be broken this year that I bailed at halftime to enjoy one of the last 60 degree Minnesota days of 2023 to pheasant hunt with my father-in-law. As the sun met the horizon in Lincoln County, MN I was pushing through a stand of 5 foot tall prairie grass when I regained cell service and got the news. Our small hunting party cheered and the bird dogs howled. No, I didn’t get any pheasants. Yes, it feels amazing to have been wrong.

His tearful, euphoric release demonstrated the extreme emotional toll the 0-7 Iowa streak had on P.J. Fleck. For the fans it ran at least as deep; when Minnesota last won in Iowa City in 1999, I was a senior in high school. The only current undergrads who were even alive then either did military service, an extended mission trip, or are bored 80 year old grandparents checking one last thing off the list before shuffling off this mortal coil.

The impact of such an emotional event was in my mind somewhere around my 10th replay of the second half later that night. A combination of physical wear, mental weakness, and Brau Brothers beer allowed the concept of a “let down” or “trap game” to creep into my mind. How would the tension, relief, and celebration affect our coaches and players? Is there enough time to refocus and reset or will we look past a beaten-down but still-breathing Michigan State team in coming apart at the seams?

It is Year 7 of the Fleck regime at Minnesota, more than sufficient sample size to provide indicating trends. Let us look back to look forward. In my view, since 2017 there have been 4 games that carried a similar level of emotional weight and practical tension as last weekend. Let’s tackle them in order.

November 24th, 2018: Minnesota 37, Wisconsin 15 at Camp Randall Stadium

2018 was a tumultuous year; Fleck’s second, the Minnesota defense was shameful. Under Robb Smith Minnesota gave up 42 points against a 5-7 Maryland, 53 points in Fleck’s only loss to date against Nebraska, and 55 points in a debacle against Illinois that led to Smith’s dismissal. Replacement Joe Rossi led an immediate turnaround holding Purdue to 10 points and eventual Big Ten West champs Northwestern to 24 before 5-6 Minnesota came into 6-5 Wisconsin in Madison. Minnesota’s last win in Madison had been in 1994, a stretch of 24 years (spoiler alert: relevant).

Minnesota led 17-7 at halftime; Joe Rossi’s defense held splendidly and a season that saw the introduction of both Tanner Morgan and Mohammed Ibrahim was capped with a dominating victory, salvaging Minnesota’s once-dead bowl hopes. I’ll never forget watching the rush to The Axe and players chopping down someone else’s goalposts for once. P.J. Fleck looking adoringly at The Axe has become an iconic image for Gopher fans and apparently also for his linens. I stayed up until about 4 am that night watching replays and listening to the greatest ever episode of TAWpod (RIP in Peace).

Postscript: Minnesota sent Paul Johnson to retirement in fine form, handily defeating Georgia Tech in the Quick Lane Bowl 34-10. A full month elapsed between the games, for parties to be had and nerves to settle.

November 9th, 2019: #17 Minnesota 31, #4 Penn State 26 at TCF Bank Stadium

What started as a terrifying season way-too-close non-conference wins settled into a firm upswing by mid-season as Minnesota, 8-0 for the first time since The War (the second one) welcomed Penn State to Minneapolis in front of the most energetic, wired crowd I can recall bar one. The energy on campus was electric and palpable, unlike any other pregame experience I’ve had on campus. “Gophs by a million!” was MVofDT/MVofBOT’s confident pregame prediction and I had almost come to believe it until Penn State’s final drive. Then Jordan Howden intervened and sealed the victory.

What followed was a (positive) media storm unprecedented for a Gopher coach in the modern era. After the field had been stormed, P.J. Fleck spent the next week doing near-constant media hits in every possible medium. By mid-week even Mr. Energetic was looking droopy-eyed and exhausted on ESPN. But surely, he wouldn’t fumble this opportunity to beat a vulnerable 6-3 Iowa the following week; Minnesota was now 9-0 for the first time since the Roosevelt Administration (the first one). Opportunity and history awaited.

Postscript: #8 Minnesota came into Iowa City and laid a massive egg, losing 23-19 in a contest where they were never completely out but never looked completely prepared. There was a dropped touchdown pass in the endzone that probably didn’t have anything to do with preparation, but Kirk Ferentz had the last smirk and Fleck went to 0-4 all-time against Iowa.

November 27, 2021: Minnesota 23, #14 Wisconsin 13 at TCF Bank Stadium

2021 continued the pattern of 2019 with Minnesota frequently playing to the level of their opponent. Conservative, show-no-secrets, clock management offense led to upset losses to Bowling Green State and Illinois. Mixed with respectable losses to Ohio State and Iowa, 7-4 Minnesota’s season looked much less impressive than 8-3 Wisconsin’s despite their similar records. All of Wisconsin’s losses had come to AP-ranked teams: Penn State, Notre Dame, and Michigan.

Minnesota went into the half down 10-6 and I remember feeling pretty ok about that at the time. The floodgates opened in the 3rd Quarter, and with night fallen, Minnesota rushed the field to the dulcet tones of “Jump Around”, and that’s the first time I saw an opposing fan physically seethe.

Postscript: Minnesota won the Guaranteed Rate Bowl against West Virginia 18-6 on a nightmare turf that claimed several Mountaineer knees. The game itself was work-a-day and unremarkable. Minnesota went out and did its job, nothing flashy, the game never really in doubt, again benefitting from a month’s break.

November 26, 2022: Minnesota 23, Wisconsin 16 at Camp Randall Stadium

Listen, we all remember this one. Wisconsin looked bad in 2022; the offense had lost it’s last drops of juice and on October 2nd the Badgers sent Paul Chryst packing to the nearest Kohls for a new pair of khakis. Defensive savant Jim Leonhard stood in as interim head coach. Did he know Luke Fickell would be named head coach the next day? Who the hell cares, because Minnesota reversed the previous year’s pattern, going into halftime up 10-6 but winning the second half 13-10 to hold on for a win. It was the first time Minnesota had won back-to-back against Wisconsin since 1993-1994 and the first time back-to-back in Madison since 1984/1986.

Postscript: Minnesota defeated Syracuse in the Pinstripe Bowl with 14 points each in the 2nd and 3rd Quarter. Yet again, a month’s cooldown helped.

October 28th, 2023: Minnesota vs. Michigan State, Huntington Bank Stadium

So what does history tell us about this game? Frankly, the precedents as discussed above are of limited value. Three occurred against Wisconsin and at the end of the season with a month off for leisurely celebration and refocus. In each case, P.J. Fleck and his staff did their jobs well and the team was ready to win.

It is tempting to focus on 2019 Penn State as the only real comparator. It occurred in the regular season, with the letdown occurring only 7 days later. For us middle-aged fans, it helped exorcise the demon of 2003 Michigan, further pumping up our expectations going into Iowa the next week.

Dear reader, I am not going to break down the football Xs and Os, this is a purely vibes-based post. We all know that history doesn’t repeat itself but it sometimes rhymes. I argue that this year is a slant rhyme with 2018. In 2018 we finally defeated Wisconsin in Madison for the first time in 24 years. In 2023 we defeated Iowa in Iowa City after 24 years. Our defense has been embarrassing but appears to be improving. It is possible our best running backs will be out; in 2018 we had lost Zack Annexstad and handed the QB role to redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan.

Unlike 2019, our post-script opponent is not a hated rival but rather mildly annoying and adrift. Michigan State is losing players to the portal and to half-game suspensions, Mel Tucker has time on his hands, and somehow NFTuck remains a going concern. P.J. Fleck has made his media appearances but the conversion of the Iowa fanbase into the QAnon of the Big Ten West has limited demands and exposure. The team practiced Sunday night, shifting immediately into Michigan State season.

Friends, Gophers, the past can be a useful measuring stick, a guide that shows us what is possible and the traps that may befall us. It is not a sentence, not fate, not destiny. This weekend we will go the 2018 route and give Sparty a firm no.

Postcript: Gophs by several hundred thousand.

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