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Notre Dame Could Target P.J. Fleck

November 30, 2021 - (0) comments

 

The surprise news yesterday that Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly is leaving for LSU prompts speculation Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck will be on the candidate list to become the next head football coach of the Fighting Irish. There are more prominent names than Fleck for Notre Dame to consider but his name could be top 10.

Several years ago Kelly was going through a difficult stretch at Notre Dame and Fleck—then at Western Michigan and among the hottest young coaching names in the country—was in the rumor mill as a successor in South Bend. Fleck’s energetic personality and success making the Broncos a national story had drawn impressive media coverage including in-depth features by the New York Times and Sports Illustrated.

Notre Dame’s legacy is all about rah-rah and few coaches can give a butt-kicking Friday night campus pep-talk better than the creative and passionate Fleck. Critics might scoff that his Row the Boat mantra wouldn’t be accepted by the conservative Catholic school in South Bend, but not so fast with that. Fleck could dump Row the Boat at “Touchdown Jesus,” explaining that program building at Western Michigan and Minnesota required cultural changes, but not at storied Notre Dame.

The Irish coaching history has often focused on leaders from the Midwest whose background and values fit the school and team. The list includes national championship coaches Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine (from Proctor, Minnesota), and another colorful personality who coached the Gophers, Lou Holtz. Fleck, an Illinois native who has made his coaching reputation in the Midwest, fits the Irish coaching profile in multiple ways from leading a faith-based life to relishing recruiting to demanding accountability from his players. And, oh yes, his conservative run-first offense, is a perfect fit on those snowy, sleeting Saturdays at Notre Dame Stadium.

Maybe Luke Fickell, Dave Aranda, Matt Campbell, Lane Kiffin or another headliner will be the next Notre Dame coach. Maybe Fleck, the 2019 Big Ten Coach of the Year, doesn’t even want the job if offered. “America’s team” is a pressure cooker assignment where every year the playoffs are the expectation. The annual schedule serves up few “cupcakes,” and the Notre Dame environment, with its emphasis on church and academics, isn’t a fit for certain recruits.

Fleck has a new seven-year contract with the Gophers. He likes working for his boss, athletic director Mark Coyle. He and wife Heather are genuine in their liking for the lifestyle here, including summer celebrations at Lake Minnetonka. They refer to Minnesota as home. Their commitment could also get a test in coming days and weeks.

Worth Noting

Fleck planned to celebrate his 41st birthday Monday night at a local restaurant accompanied by Heather and Paul Bunyan’s Axe.

That was state senator Paul Gazelka tweeting Sunday about the Axe being back home and showing a photo of himself with the famed rivalry trophy.

The Golden Gophers held Wisconsin 17-year-old freshman phenom Braelon Allen to just 47 yards rushing in Minnesota’s 23-13 upset win last Saturday. The UW tailback had rushed for over 100 yards in seven consecutive games. Minnesota defenders swarmed Allen and consistently tackled him low.

In 12 games the Gophers have allowed 100.2 yards rushing per game. That’s a program best since the 1962 Gopher defense held opponents to 52.2 yards, a school record. Minnesota’s figure of 100.2 yards ranks 10th nationally and second in the Big Ten to Wisconsin.

Since defensive coordinator Joe Rossi succeeded Robb Smith after a blowout 55-31 loss to Illinois on November 3, 2018, the Gophers have a 25-11 record. Rossi and his staff excel at player development, game preparation and in-game adjustments. Minnesota didn’t allow an offensive touchdown in the Wisconsin win.

Among the assistants on the Gopher staff is tight ends coach Clay Patterson who had an impressive resume with offenses at smaller programs. As the coordinator at Trinity Valley Community College in 2015 his offense broke the all-time yards per game record at any level with an average of 656.1. Could he be in the mix to succeed Mike Sanford as Minnesota’s offensive coordinator?

Tanner Morgan

Quarterback Tanner Morgan, born April 17, 1999, will be 23 years old before the Gophers play their opening game next season. Quarterback Trey Lance, the Marshall, Minnesota native drafted in the first round this year by the 49ers, will be 22 next spring. In NFL history there are a number of quarterbacks who started for their teams when 21 including Matthew Stafford and Michael Vick.

Morgan drew speculation about being a second round draft choice in 2019 when he was second team All-Big Ten and a contender for two national QB of the year awards. He has solid mechanics and more opportunities to pass next season compared with 2021 will help him. And so, too, would an improved receiver corps. All of that could position him to be either a draft choice or free agent invite.

Morgan’s work ethic is admired. “No one works harder than him,” Rossi said.

Morgan’s leadership among teammates is also praised. “They don’t want to let him down,” Rossi said.

The last quarterback drafted out of the Gopher program was Craig Curry, an eighth round pick in 1972 taken by the Dolphins.

At least as important for success in 2022 as the return of Morgan is the decision by All-American tailback Mo Ibrahim to pass on the NFL Draft and play one more season at Minnesota. “He’s going to have an unbelievable year next year,” Sanford said recently.

In retrospect, it looks like the Gophers should have targeted a wide receiver in the transfer portal last winter. Fleck and the coaches scored with transfer help from linebacker Jack Gibbens, defensive lineman Nyles Pinckney and field goal kicker Matthew Trickett.

Minnesota will be active in the portal this offseason likely searching for help at linebacker, in the offensive and defensive lines, and perhaps wide receiver.

How about Christmas in the Big Apple? Richard Johnson from SI.com predicts Minnesota will play Miami (Florida) in the December 29 New Era Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium.

The Gophers start the 2022 season football season with five consecutive home games, then play only two games in Minneapolis from October 8 thru November 26. Included in the early slate is a rare September date with Iowa.

The Hawkeyes match up better with Michigan than Ohio State for this Saturday’s Big Ten championship game. If the Buckeyes had won the right to advance to the title game, their explosive offense figured to have Iowa playing from behind early on, and catch up is not an Iowa strength.

This writer’s Big Ten power rankings: Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa, Michigan State, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Purdue, Penn State, Illinois, Rutgers, Maryland, Nebraska, Indiana and Northwestern.

Former Gophers wildcat quarterback Seth Green is a tight end at 11-1 Houston where he has caught 12 passes for 134 yards and three touchdowns. The Cougars play undefeated Cincinnati Saturday in the AAC championship game.

 

U Axe Win Not Just Another Victory

November 28, 2021 - 1 Comment

 

The Golden Gophers’ 23-13 win over No. 18 Wisconsin was the 57th game of the P.J. Fleck era and one of the most SIGNIFICANT during his five years as head coach at Minnesota.

Euphoric Golden Gophers fans dancing with delight after a home win has seldom been seen in these parts over the decades. But it’s happened twice now in three seasons, with delirious fans on the stadium field celebrating Saturday night’s repossession of the Axe—and two years ago when the Gophers upset No. 5 ranked Penn State in Minneapolis on their way to a historic 11-2 season.

A “here we go again” malaise has hung over Gopher football for decades. Whether it’s coaching tenures that didn’t work out, blown leads in big games, or losing streaks in border rivalries, Gopher football has hardly been the toast of the town for a long time. Just two weeks ago the Gophers lost a seventh consecutive game in the series with the hated Hawkeyes of Iowa. Yesterday’s win over the Badgers won’t wipe away the past but it is a shot of confidence for a skeptical public that waffles in its interest and support for the program.

Minnesota went into the Wisconsin game a touchdown underdog to the nationally ranked Badgers who with a victory could have advanced to the Big Ten championship game. By halftime the Gophers trailed 10-6, partly because of an interception turned into a Badger touchdown.

But the Gophers clearly out-played their opponent in the second half, defeating the Badgers in Minneapolis for the first time since 2003. They also claimed the Axe for the second time in four years, having beaten “Bucky” 37-15 in Madison in 2018.

“This program is all about responding, not reacting,” Fleck said Saturday night after Minnesota defeated the Badgers for only the fourth time this millennium.

Fleck was talking about more than overcoming a halftime deficit in a big rivalry game before a near sellout crowd where patrons paid more than $100 per ticket. Time allowing, he could have detailed a lot of obstacles the Gophers have faced on and off the field, this year and in the past.

Mo Ibrahim

The list starts with the loss of All-American tailback Mo Ibrahim who was injured in the opening game and won’t play again until next season. In a run-heavy offense, Ibrahim is the unit’s irreplaceable player. It doesn’t require much reflection to contend Minnesota could have flipped a couple of losses into the victory column with him playing this fall. (During the season, Ibrahim was one of five tailbacks on the roster not available).

The Gophers lost three games by a total of 17 points. With Ibrahim, or more emphasis and execution of the passing game, Minnesota might have won against Bowling Green, Illinois and Iowa.

In season ending wins over Indiana and Wisconsin, Fleck and offensive coordinator Mike Sanford opened up the offense. By doing so they helped the run game and the throwing rhythm of quarterback Tanner Morgan.

Fleck’s conservative offensive philosophy of run-run-run and taking time off the clock has been a solid approach at Minnesota. Some Saturdays the Gophers face a talent disparity against their opponents, needing to reduce possessions by the other team’s skilled playmakers, and long scoring drives by Minnesota have paid off many times during the Fleck era, especially with a game changing runner like Ibrahim. But the willingness to open up the offense with more passes from Morgan and more receivers targeted is a significant change and one that should continue into the bowl game and next season.

The win Saturday gives the Gophers an 8-4 overall record, 6-3 in Big Ten games. The perception and reality of those totals is much better than records of 7-5 and 5-4. Minnesota finished in a second place tie with the Badgers and Purdue in the West Division standings. Only nine times in the last 50 years have the Gophers finished at .500 or better in conference games.

Minnesota is no coaching paradise. It is one of the more challenging jobs in the Big Ten including because of its distance from recruiting hotbeds like California, Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas. The U has fired eight coaches since 1970—and they weren’t all inept coaches. Iowa and Wisconsin, BTW, have fired zero head coaches in the last 30 seasons.

Every Gopher head football coach in modern times has been challenged to find adequate in-state talent to make a run at even being a .500 team in the Big Ten. The better college football prospects, regardless of where they are from, want to play at a program that wins season after season, goes to big bowl games, has CFP aspirations and a track record of sending players to the NFL. That hasn’t exactly been Minnesota’s profile.

Fleck and his assistants (including highly valued defensive coordinator Joe Rossi) are on the favored side of winning and losing. Fleck’s overall record at Minnesota is 34-23. His winning percentage of .597 is the third best ever among Gopher coaches who coached in 45 games or more. Minnesota had had 19 coaches since 1900 and Fleck ranks sixth all-time in program wins.

Fleck’s Big Ten record is 21-22. Pat Fitzgerald, considered by authorities to be among the best coaches in the Big Ten and a consensus top coach nationally, is 64-68 in league games at hard-to-win Northwestern. Scott Frost, who just finished his fourth season at Nebraska and is head coach of a storied program, is 10-25 in conference games.

Fleck is also 2-0 in bowl games including a New Year’s Day Outback win over the SEC’s Auburn Tigers. The Wisconsin win could boost the chances of a quality bowl game destination for the Gophers who won’t be headed to Detroit this holiday season.

The victory over the Badgers and the overall success of the coaching staff is a return on investment for University of Minnesota leaders and outside boosters. This fall athletic director Mark Coyle and school president Joan Gabel approved a new seven-year contract for Fleck, and along with that commitment will come increased compensation for assistant coaches. The U, including the board of regents, and outside financial boosters, have made major commitments in recent years to all varsity sports with the most visible new resource being the Athletes Village.

P.J. Fleck

Clearly the football program is going in the right direction and is authentic. And whether fans like it or not, it’s also time to accept Fleck as genuine. His personality is too over the top for critics but this is who Fleck is. “Row the boat,” and all that goes with it, is not an act.

This is a coach committed to the RBT culture and his way of doing things. It’s not for all recruits, players and fans. But it works for many. “We’re all about fit here,” Fleck said Saturday.

When it comes to sharing messages, Fleck’s Gophers never know what they’re going to hear but sometimes the lesson ties to his long ago vision of being an elementary school teacher. The other day he spoke about the need for his players to be themselves and no one else, referencing the children’s book Be You! That’s also authentic Fleck.

During the five years of the Fleck era the program has made progress on and off the field. The Gophers are 22-10 in the last three seasons, while dealing with the chaos of the pandemic and social unrest in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Collectively the student-athletes have achieved a record GPA, dedicated countless hours to community service helping children and adults, and avoided external incidents that could bring embarrassment to all involved.

Every Gophers football coach has been criticized for his personality and his results. It goes with the job. But they all noticed the chorus quiets when you win.

 

Diggs Deal Works Big Time for Vikings

November 22, 2021 - (0) comments

 

There is no second-guessing any more about the Vikings’ March 2020 trade that sent veteran big play wide receiver Stefon Diggs to the Bills. Dissent was all but buried yesterday by the headline performance of second-year wide receiver Justin Jefferson.

The Vikings received draft choices in return for a disgruntled Diggs who didn’t want to be in Minnesota’s offense. Those draft choices gave the Vikings not only Jefferson, but potential significant contributors in safety Camryn Bynum and defensive end Kenny Willekes.

Jefferson, of course, is the prize and all he did yesterday was catch eight passes for 169 yards and two touchdowns in the team’s 34-31 win over the Packers. “…He loves to go out and compete,” Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said on KFXN’s postgame radio show. “He’s been catching the ball great and running good routes, and he just lives for these moments.”

Diggs and Jefferson are similar in stats this season. Jefferson has 63 receptions for 944 yards and six touchdowns. Diggs has 60 catches for 773 yards and six touchdowns. Jefferson has 17 plays of 20 or more yards while Diggs totals eight.

Not only does Jefferson have the edge in key numbers but at age 22 he is six years younger than Diggs. And he’s a bargain with a base salary of about $1.2 million, while Diggs costs the Bills over $12 million, per Spotrac.com.

Jefferson is also a happy camper with the Vikings who talks team, not just about himself. He likes this offense that helped pull the Vikings to a 5-5 record yesterday against the 8-3 NFC North Division leading Packers.

“I feel like this offense is tops in the league with him (RB Dalvin Cook) running the ball, and me, Adam (WR Thielen), K.J. (WR Osborn) catching the ball. We can go a long way,” Jefferson said. “I feel like it’s hard to stop all of us on this offense and it’s a great offense.”

Quarterback Kirk Cousins, of course, is a big part of the rejuvenated offense that has been so productive of late, and so is his offensive line. Cousins threw for 341 yards and three touchdowns in the win Sunday while the line, including guards Ezra Cleveland and Uli Udoh, and center Mason Cole had success handling Packers defensive tackle and play wrecker Kenny Clark.

Regular center Garrett Bradbury is back from COVID but it seems likely Cole continues to start.

Worth Noting

Vikings network radio analyst Ben Leber was critical of safety Xavier Woods’ performance against the Packers who passed for 385 yards. “No, he did not have a good day,” the former Viking linebacker said after the game. “There were a couple times where it looked like to me it’s simple discipline things where he just has wrong leverage. He is not understanding where his help is and it’s unfortunate for a guy that is such a veteran player, and he’s had a great season so far. …”

The pandemic, high ticket prices and the team’s slow start to the season has the Vikings running TV commercials for single game tickets for remaining home games.

Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said health issues shouldn’t sideline any of his starters for Saturday’s game against the Badgers at Huntington Bank Stadium.

However, defensive line depth is impacted with news Sunday that M.J. Andersen is leaving the team and today that Rashad Cheney is doing the same. Don’t be surprised if other players enter the transfer portal between now and Minnesota’s yet to be determined bowl game.

Quarterback Tanner Morgan, who lost his father about five months ago, has long received the admiration of his coach. Morgan has won more games (25) than any QB in program history and Fleck praises him for his talent, courage and leadership.

“I might be working for him someday,” Fleck said.

Analytics have made 3-8 Nebraska a slight favorite (about three points) over 9-2 Iowa for Friday’s key West Division game in Lincoln.

Ex-Gophers Thomas Barber and Justin Conzemius, along with a TBD Gopher assistant coach, will headline Friday’s Goal Line Club preview lunch of the Minnesota-Wisconsin game at Elsie’s in northeast Minneapolis. www.goallineclub.org/events.

The 4-0 basketball Gophers led by first-year coach Ben Johnson and top assistant Dave Thorson are playing with more togetherness than any Minnesota team in memory.

Tony Oliva

Former Twins Jim Kaat and Tony Oliva will know December 5 whether they are voted into baseball’s hall of fame. “Both should be in the hall of fame,” former Pioneer Press Twins writer Gregg Wong told Sports Headliners.

Kaat, 83, won 283 games during a 25-year career with the Twins and other MLB teams. For 16 consecutive seasons he was a Rawlings Gold Glove winner, and sometimes was both a pinch runner and hitter with the Twins. “Not a better all-around pitcher in the game,” Wong said in comparing how well Kaat stacks up with pitchers of the past and today.

Oliva, also 83, had a lifetime batting average of .304 and is the only player in MLB history to win batting championships during his first two seasons. Oliva was a three-time American League batting champion and led the AL in hits five seasons. The Twins’ right fielder was a feared hitter who could hit pitched balls headed for the dirt into the seats.

Kaat and Oliva are part of a 10-person Golden Days Era ballot that includes Dick Allen, Ken Boyer, Gil Hodges, Roger Maris, Minnie Miñoso, Danny Murtaugh, Billy Pierce and Maury Wills. Kaat, Oliva and Wills are the only ones still living. “Even better reason to get them in the hall of fame,” said Wong who is a hall of fame voter but not a member of the Golden Days Era Committee deciding the fates of the 10 ex-players.

Any candidate who receives votes on 75 percent of the ballots cast by the 16-member committee will be elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and inducted in Cooperstown on July 24, 2022.

Wong and former Minneapolis Central High School football teammate Bill Forsyth recently had dinner and reminisced with their former coach, 93-year-old Chuck Elias. “One of the most enjoyable evenings of my life,” Wong said.

The 1963 Pioneers were undefeated and City Conference football champions.

Much anticipated in these parts is Patrick Reusse’s annual Turkey of the Year column in the Thanksgiving Day issue of the Star Tribune. Who wins in 2021? Rocco Baldelli and Mark Coyle could be contenders.

The Vikings don’t play on Thanksgiving Day in 2021 but they have taken a liking to such games, going 6-2 over the years. They have won three of the last four with two straight over the Cowboys and splitting two with the Lions.

The Gophers defeated the Badgers 14-0 in Minneapolis on Thanksgiving Day 1963. The game had been rescheduled from the previous Saturday because of President John Kennedy’s assassination.

Former KARE 11 sports anchor Eric Perkins is the latest “Behind the Game” guest of co-hosts Patrick Klinger and Bill Robertson. Perkins is deciding on his next career move. The program is available for viewing on the “Behind the Game” YouTube Channel and via cable access throughout the state.

Happy Thanksgiving!

 

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