U, Fleck Raise Bar at Oregon State
Impressions and memories of the Gophers and the state of Oregon after a trip west last week that included watching Minnesota’s dominant win Saturday night over Oregon State.
Great coaches make a difference, even in the early games of first seasons at their new schools. Let’s not rush to tag Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck with greatness, but after two games he and his staff deserve continued review with a hopeful perspective.
The Gophers had a great coach in Lou Holtz, who led the program in 1984 and 1985. He inherited inferior Big Ten talent from the previous coaching staff when he arrived in Minneapolis. In 1983 Minnesota’s record was 1-10 including an embarrassment for the ages against Nebraska. That 84-13 defeat was part of a humiliating season when opponents outscored the Gophers 518 to 181.
Using plenty of hold-over personnel, Holtz and his assistants changed schemes but mostly willed and demanded Minnesota to a 4-7 overall record in 1984. The Gophers became fundamentally sound and stopped crucifying themselves with mistakes. The players did as they were told, and Minnesota went from the dark side to a promising future during a season when they won three Big Ten games after being winless in the conference the prior year.
In Corvallis Saturday night the Gophers won 48-14 but their personnel isn’t 34 points better than Oregon State’s—especially on the Beavers home field. Minnesota made a few errors but other than quarterback Demry Croft’s fumble inside the Gopher 20 yard line, mistakes weren’t alarming against Oregon State, a Pac-12 team Minnesota struggled with in Minneapolis last season, winning 30-23.
The now 2-0 Gophers were fundamentally solid on offense, defense and special teams. Just as important, Minnesota played with energy. The Gophers followed the lead of their emotionally-charged 36-year-old coach who sprints on and off the field. The athletic Fleck even made a nice catch of an errant Beaver pass.
Despite a roster of young players that ranks among the more inexperienced in the nation, the Gophers played with poise Saturday evening as Fleck became the first Minnesota coach to win his first road game since Murray Warmath in 1954. Fleck is also the first since Warmath to win his initial two games at Minnesota.
The Beavers narrowed the score to 20-14 at halftime after Minnesota jumped to a 17-0 lead. The Gophers didn’t let an enthusiastic crowd, Beaver comeback, or even the sound of a chainsaw on steroids deter them from their work in the second half.
Minnesota got its anticipated rushing game going after a disappointing first game with Buffalo in Minneapolis. Minnesota stayed with the run in the second half and the Gophers pounded their way to 28 second half points. Junior rushers Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks totaled 92 and 91 yards respectively for the game.
The defense hit with force, causing fumbles leading to points Saturday night. At times, the Gophers cornerbacks struggled, but the pass defense improved as the game wore on. Minnesota held Oregon State to only 80 yards rushing and 140 passing for the game.
The Gophers had a game plan, stayed with their fundamentals, and willed themselves to a surprising performance against a struggling Oregon State team that is 1-2, and giving up an average of 46 points per game.
Nobody is saying Fleck’s staff and players are going to be the Big 10 surprise team of the year, but this group deserves scrutiny as the weeks progress. More often than not, great coaches impress in the first year at a new program—even if the signs are subtle and the results modest. Those who saw Holtz’s magic show know that.
Unlike Holtz, Fleck inherited a solid program that had a 9-4 team last year. His job is much easier than Holtz signed on for, but despite improvement in recent years the Gophers have struggled to play above .500 in Big Ten games and have yet to win a conference title since 1967. Let’s see where Fleck and his “boat” are headed in the next 10 weeks including Saturday at home in their final nonconference game against Middle Tennessee State.
Streets in Oregon included a few folks wearing maroon and gold last week. The landscape, though, was more a “sea of red,” with an estimated 5,000 Cornhuskers fans in the state for Saturday’s Nebraska-Oregon game in Eugene, the town south of Portland and Corvallis.
Two Cornhuskers fans encountered on a shuttle to the airport were Nebraska-nice Sunday morning. They praised the hospitality of Oregonians while contrasting them to not so warm welcomes at other stadiums where they said Cornhusker fans have been on the receiving end of snow balls at Michigan, oranges at Miami, and beer cans at Missouri.
On the flight last week to Portland from Minneapolis was former Gophers linebacker Gary Reierson who played for the legendary Warmath. He chuckled at the remembrance of how stubborn the Gophers national championship coach could be.
Reierson also recalled how the man known for his defensive coaching fame arrived at a college football all-star game as an assistant but ended up taking charge of the North team’s offense.
Here is a final but appreciative close: Thank you to my wife’s brother Phil and sister-in-law Carole for hosting us for four nights and five days in Portland. Give Phil a game ball from last Saturday for going to Corvallis, despite recent foot surgeries and being confined to a wheelchair. Maybe that’s where the Gophers found part of their inspiration.