It was “year zero,” as head coach P.J. Fleck called the first season in a program rebuild.
The Minnesota Golden Gophers went 5-7 under their new head coach, with a 3-0 start and a 2-7 record in Big Ten play.
After one season, plenty has changed for the Gophers in terms of culture and performance on the field. No Minnesota coach since 1954 had gone both 3-0 and won their debut game.
This season, Fleck changed that.
Fleck came in with a goal to create on-field and off-field success and begin his tenure the right way. He dealt out punishment to Duke McGhee and Donnell Greene, setting an early precedent of how tight a ship he planned to run. He also began changing how the team approached games and improved their preparation, turning freshmen into viable starters as the injury bug hit the team in late September.
Now that the season has concluded, it is time to hand out grades. The offense and defense will be graded on a scale of 1 to 5. Coaching will be graded on two levels: Game prep and in-game coaching, also on a scale of 1 to 5. Uniform choices will be graded on a scale of 1 to 10. Watchability – explained later – on a 1 to 20 scale.
The offense was at its best three times this season: Against Oregon State, against Nebraska and during a 21-point fourth quarter against Michigan State. Against Oregon State and Nebraska, the Gophers found a rhythm on the ground for massive results, something they tapped into on occasion throughout the season but never found consistently.
— Minnesota on BTN (@MinnesotaOnBTN) November 14, 2017
The duo of running back Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks/Kobe McCrary worked well as long as the second man gave real pop through the middle. Smith ended the year as one of the more underrated backs in the conference, finishing with 1,447 all-purpose yards. Receiver Tyler Johnson also started hot, with 268 yards in the opening two games, and the eventual starting quarterback Demry Croft had sparks, like his three-touchdown fourth quarter against Michigan State or his 183 rushing yards against Nebraska.
For the most part, however, the offense sputtered and struggled for the bulk of the season. The team turned the ball over in the red zone and was inefficient overall, falling to deliver, particularly in the fourth quarter when a game winning/tying drive was in order. Overall, the entire offense did not take advantage of the opportunities a solid defense kept giving it. The offense ranked 120th in the country and averaged 22.1 points per game.
The other side of the ball was fantastic, finishing ranked 36th in the country but spending most of the season in the top 25. The squad recorded a striking 14 forced fumbles along with eight interceptions.
Your Week 3 @B1Gfootball Defensive Player of the Week?
— Minnesota on BTN (@MinnesotaOnBTN) September 18, 2017
Linebacker was the strongest part of the defense, with studs like Kamal Martin, Jonathan Celestin, Thomas Barber, Carter Coughlin and Blake Cashman. This team found their teeth in that level and they brought it all season long, racking up 13 of the team’s 23 sacks throughout the season. This fearsome unit was the highlight of the Gophers season.
Even a secondary maligned by injuries to key starters like Antoine Winfield Jr. and Kiondre Thomas still was able to perform. They had freshmen like Ken Holly-Handy step up and fill rolls when injuries popped up. At the end of the season, the wear and tear of a poor offense, on top of multiple injuries, finally broke them down. After a great year, the defense finished by allowing 39 and 31 points, respectively, to Northwestern and Wisconsin.
Fleck did a fantastic job getting a very young team ready and did not let need sway his morals. He had lots of adversity thrown at him with injuries and quarterback battles, yet he stuck to his method of striving to build a program that cares just as much about how it is built, as the result. They needed McGhee, but he held strong to his philosophy about holding players accountable for off-the-field actions. Same with Croft and Greene.
He also had the defense at peak performance until the final weeks despite the injuries and needed to pull redshirts just for roster depth. He continually fielded a team that was competitive for all but a handful of games. He was given a very raw program, somehow found five wins and is now setting up for a solid recruiting season.
— Minnesota on BTN (@MinnesotaOnBTN) November 18, 2017
— Minnesota Football (@GopherFootball) October 14, 2017
$ man! SACK! pic.twitter.com/XdNsPGqzn5
— Minnesota Football (@GopherFootball) November 5, 2017
The uniforms were in a word: Fire. Fleck came in and brought some heat as he worked with the school to give the team new looks while still maintaining the classic maroon and gold. The helmets, especially, looked great as they embraced the Gophers’ Goldy mascot.
No, this does not have anything to do with oodles of points or highlight catches. It is the best attempt at judging the draw of the team to the audience because of a combination of talent on the team, overall play and relevance in the sport/conference. Basically, would a non-Gophers fan keep the team on the screen?
The first month the team was exciting as they played at a high level and won enough games to stay relevant in the conference. They also had premier athletes like Winfield and Smith who were worth watching because of exceptional talent. However, over the course of the season, top players were injured and the new athletes made for sloppy play which led to losses. The team and its relevance dipped sharply as the best parts of this team –running game and defense — became predictable.
While the storyline of the new coach does draw some points, overall this team dipped sharply after their peak and bottomed out at the end of the season.