November 3, 2018 Minnesota lost a shocker to 3-5 Illinois, 55-31. The high score made the game seem more respectable than it was. No Minnesota fan watching in real time could have considered it anything other than an embarrassment. The next day, P.J. Fleck announced the firing of his friend, Defensive Coordinator Robb Smith, and his replacement with Joe Rossi. The change paid immediate dividends the following week against Purdue, a respectable loss against 9-5 Northwestern, and a win in Madison redeemed the season.
November 11, 2023 Minnesota lost a shocker at 2-7 Purdue, 49-30. The high score made the game seem more respectable than it was. No Minnesota fan watching in real time could have considered it anything other than an embarrassment. The next day…well, we don’t know yet, but it probably won’t be much. Joe Rossi has earned far more rope than Robb Smith did thanks to the performance of his defensive unit over the past several years; he’s not going anywhere, nor do I think he should.
Yet, Minnesota in Year 7 finds itself in a nearly identical position it found itself in Year 2, 5-5 with a sure-loss next week against Big Ten East Division leader Ohio State, and then a bowl trip on the line against Wisconsin to end the regular season. Wisconsin looks awful, and it won’t be shocking if Minnesota takes home both Floyd of Rosedale and the Axe in 2023 and goes bowling for the 5th time in 7 seasons. Most Minnesota fans of the past 60 years would have considered that a great outcome.
But the price of success is a change of expectations, and in Year 7 a performance equaling Year 2 is no longer acceptable to most fans, trophies or not. Going into this season, I predicted a 7-5 finish; we’re not that far off, and yet I’m profoundly disappointed. Is this unreasonable, especially given our historical futility?
I don’t think so. Minnesota finds itself in a bowl-elimination game against its biggest rival only because it failed to show up in the 2nd half of three completely winnable games against Northwestern, Illinois, and Purdue. Ironically, our relative success against our rivals in the Fleck era (especially Wisconsin) is cheapened by our consistent under-performance against teams at or below our own level.
One doesn’t require a deep dive in statistics to see what’s happening, it’s as predictable as the sunrise. A descent offensive start, inexplicable coverage gaps, poor clock management, continued defensive regression, a sleep-walked 3rd Quarter in which we spot our opponents multiple scores. Our game plan seems to assume we’ll be up 4 touchdowns at half every game; we never are, and we seem unable to adjust. If our players were straight-up being beaten 1:1 it would be at least explicable if not excusable. With rare exception, that’s not what is happening.
Take NIL, recruiting, the future of the program and the conference and college football overall out of it. Hell, take the 1st Half of today’s game out of it. Minnesota was down 22 with just over 10 minutes left in the 4th Quarter and opted for a Field Goal, cutting a 3 score game down to a 3 score game. It tells you everything you need to know about the decision-making process for this program.
The plan for the program seems to be “take the points and hope”. It’s not working against the middle of the Big Ten West. How do we think it will fare against Washington and Oregon in 2024?
After the win over #4 Penn State in 2019 P.J. Fleck said “I’m sure there was some people on the final drive who said ‘Oh, here we go again.’ Gotta let go of all of that…we’ve got to change at some point.” Minnesota HAS changed, and expectations change with it; that’s called growth. Fleck himself has said we’re “not going back”. Fans took him at his word and believed. The world is providing real-time feedback that what’s happening isn’t working.
“…we’ve got to change at some point.” At what point does that include the coach’s approach to game management? The world wonders.