On January 6, PJ Fleck accepted the vacant head football coaching position at the University of Minnesota. Upon arriving on campus, Fleck talked about bringing an elite culture to the school’s football program and bringing Big Ten and National Championships back to Minnesota. On November 18, the Minnesota football team suffered its worst loss of the season, losing 39-0 at Northwestern, bringing the Gophers to a disappointing 5-6 record and putting any Big Ten or National Championship aspirations to bed.
The Gophers started the season strong, winning their first three games by double digits, and it looked as though this season could be a promising one. Since their 3-0 start, Fleck and the Gophers have gone 2-6, only beating an Illinois team that has the most freshman playing in the country and beating a poorly led Nebraska team whose head coach, unlike the Minnesota football team, is going to get the ax at the end of the season.
However, the poor 2-6 slide over the past eight games for the Gophers is hardly surprising. The team has shown glaring weaknesses in its fall from grace, and the most weaknesses are present in the team's offense. The offense was quite possibly the difference between the Gophers winning only five or as many as eight to nine games this season.
The Gopher offense has been miserable to watch all season. The offense ranks tenth in the Big Ten in scoring offense, twelfth in total offense and thirteenth in pass offense. The offense is completely predictable and leans incredibly too much on its running game. While the three-headed monster of Rodney Smith, Shannon Brooks, and Kobe McCrary at running back is downright scary for opposing defenses, Minnesota offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarocca absolutely abuses his running backs. Ciarocca is repeatedly running the ball up the middle and into the arms of opposing linebackers and defensive lineman for uninspiring gains of one to two yards on every first and second down.
When the offense is only gaining two to three yards through two downs on offense, it is no surprise that every Gopher’s third-down turns into a passing situation, and the offense turns from looking uninspiring to downright ugly when a Minnesota third down pass either goes through the hands or over the head of Tyler Johnson, who the Minnesota quarterbacks may just believe is the only receiver on the team.
As noted earlier, Minnesota ranks second to last in passing offense, which makes third downs miserable for the Gophers and puts the Gopher offense’s biggest deficiency on full display. Minnesota has had trouble passing the ball all season. The team has been juggling quarterbacks Conor Rhoda and Demry Croft all season, and each has looked equally as bad with a football in their hands. The only time the quarterbacks can complete a pass is when a receiver makes an acrobatic catch or when they pass in a screenplay where a defender is ready to tackle the receiver behind the line of scrimmage after the pass is completed.
Where is the blame to be set for the Gopher’s dreadful season on offense? The blame can be set ultimately on the offensive play-calling and the team's quarterbacks, and PJ Fleck must address both issues in what could be a long off-season for Minnesota Football.