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P.J. Fleck 15-5 Last 20 Games, But…

 

P.J. Fleck, now in his fourth season as the University of Minnesota head football coach, is an impressive 15-5 dating back to November 10, 2018.  That’s his overall record in both Big Ten and nonconference games including two bowl wins, highlighted by an Outback Bowl gem last January against SEC blueblood Auburn.  His Big Ten record during the period is 10-5.

Fleck’s 15-5 translates to a winning percentage of .750.  In all games during his Gopher career that began with the 2017 season he is 24-17, a winning percentage of .585.  Looking back almost 100 years in Minnesota coaching history, only the legendary Bernie Bierman with a .727 winning percentage has a better number than Fleck’s .585.

But in the “what have you done for me lately” world of high stakes college football, Fleck must build on his record.  Despite the honeymoon of last season’s 11-2 record and No. 10 AP final ranking, critics have rushed in to criticize the 39-year-old coach this fall, with his team losing two of its first three games and at times playing with an Olé defense.  Minnesota is giving up 36 points per game and opponents have scored 15 touchdowns.

The defensive unit is inexperienced and development was slowed by the cancellation of spring practice and late start to the season caused by the pandemic.  However, there was better tackling and swarming to ball carriers in last Saturday’s 41-14 win at Illinois. Friday night at home against Iowa, Minnesota’s defense is likely to determine the game’s outcome.

The Hawkeyes, 1-2 with the two losses by a combined five points, deserve to be favored.  This is a typical Iowa team, fundamentally sound and conservative in approach with success starting with its defense.  The Hawkeyes have given up only seven touchdowns, the fewest among Big Ten teams who have played three games.

New starter Spencer Petras is settling in at quarterback and Iowa scored a season high 49 points last Saturday in a win over Michigan State.  The victory gave head coach Kirk Ferentz his 163rd win at Iowa, fourth best for overall wins in Big Ten history.

If Minnesota can upset Iowa that will end a streak of five consecutive losses to the Hawkeyes—and also of importance, improve Fleck’s standing in rivalry games.  He is 4-8 in trophy games against Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska, Penn State and Wisconsin.  Nebraska is included here even though neither the Husker nor Gopher athletic departments officially recognize the $5 Broken Bits of Chair Trophy—an Internet creation that started several years ago.

A Gopher win in the nationally televised Fox game will slow the frequent carping by Fleck critics and boost Minnesota’s record to 2-2 in Big Ten games.  That development keeps in place aspirations of winning the Big Ten West Division where 3-0 Northwestern is already in a commanding position.  The Gophers and Wisconsin tied for best record in the West last year with 7-2 records.

Worth Noting

Although the Minnesota defense played poorly in its 45-44 loss October 30 to Maryland, the emergence of new Terrapins starting quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa as a high impact passer and scrambler provides perspective to the performance.  The Terps, 2-0, took down Penn State last Saturday. His combined 676 passing yards over the last two weeks against the Gophers and Penn State are the most by a Big Ten player this season.

Former Gophers Darrell Thompson and MarQueis Gray help preview the Minnesota-Iowa game at noon Friday via zoom courtesy of the Goal Line Club.  More on the program at the GoalLineClub.org.

Arland Bruce IV, son of former Gopher wide receiver Arland Bruce III, is a composite three-star athlete recruit per 247Sports, and is verbally committed to be part of Iowa’s 2021 recruiting class.  He plays for Ankeny High School in Ankeny, Iowa.

Word is the Vikings wanted 5,000 fans, seated in acceptably distanced sections, to attend home games this fall but with pandemic concerns trending in the wrong direction it doesn’t appear the state of Minnesota will allow that target number at any of the team’s four remaining dates at U.S. Bank Stadium.  The policy of allowing a maximum of 250 spectators per home game seems all but certain to continue.

Twin Cities author Jim Bruton is finishing up a book on former Viking Scott Studwell to be marketed next fall.  Named as one of the 50 greatest Vikings, Studwell’s connection to the organization is defined by 14 years of playing linebacker and 28 years in the scouting department.

Viking linebacker Eric Kendricks, who has led the team in tackles for five consecutive seasons, is third in the NFL with 84 total tackles. Linebacker teammate Eric Wilson is the only player in the league with at least three interceptions and more than one sack (he has 2.5).

Minnesota wide receiver Justin Jefferson’s 627 receiving yards lead all NFL rookies in 2020. His receiving yardage total is already the fifth most for a rookie in Vikings history and is the most ever for a rookie through Minnesota’s first eight games.

In SI.com’s NFL power rankings out yesterday the Vikings are No. 17, with next Monday night’s opponent, the Chicago Bears, No. 18.  The Kansas City Chiefs are No. 1, with the Green Bay Packers No. 5.

Erik van Rooyen, the South African golfer and former Golden Gopher, is playing in this week’s Masters in Augusta, Georgia. Van Rooyen’s opening tee time Thursday is 11:05 a.m. (Central). He tied for 23rd this year in the U.S Open and has $941,958 in career winnings since turning pro in 2013.  He won the local Tapemark Charity Pro-Am in 2016 but didn’t make the cut at this year’s 3M Open.

Anecdotal observation indicated for months that Minnesota golf courses were busier than usual, and Monday’s Axios Sports newsletter offered national numbers about the boom.  In September there was a U.S. 25.5 percent increase in number of rounds played year-over-year—the fifth consecutive month to surpass 2019 totals. Also per Axios, “Equipment sales increased 42 percent year-over-year in the third quarter to just over $1 billion. It was the industry’s second-best quarter ever.”

Richard Pitino

Despite seven teams (half of the Big Ten) being ranked in the Associated Press men’s basketball preseason top 25, the unranked Gophers could turn out to be an NCAA Tournament entry.  Coach Richard Pitino, after losing All-American center Daniel Oturu as an early entrant to the NBA Draft, has regrouped with six new players, including talented transfers with college experience (Both Gach, Brandon Johnson and Liam Robbins).  Plus, All-Big Ten point guard Marcus Carr decided against entering the draft and is one of the best at his position in college basketball.  The Gophers are expected to open their schedule at home November 25 against Green Bay.

Pitino’s dad, 68-year-old Rick Pitino, told the Sporting News Monday his new gig at Iona is a stepping stone job—to eventual retirement.  Realtor.com reported last month Rick Pitino sold his $17 million south Florida home.

Jeff Munneke of the Timberwolves and J.P. Paul of the Vikings, both with expertise in fan relations, are the latest guests on “Behind the Game,” with co-hosts Patrick Klinger and Bill Robertson.  Munneke and Paul discuss fan engagement in the pandemic era and how the experience of fans will be different when spectators return to venues.  The program is available on the “Behind the Game” Channel on YouTube and on cable access throughout the state.

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David Shama

David Shama is a former sports editor and columnist with local publications. His writing and reporting experiences include covering the Minnesota Vikings, Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Gophers. Shama’s career experiences also include sports marketing. He is the former Marketing Director of the Minnesota North Stars of the NHL. He is also the former Marketing Director of the United States Tennis Association’s Northern Section. A native of Minneapolis, Shama has been part of the community his entire life. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota where he majored in journalism. He also has a Master’s degree in education from the University of St. Thomas. He was a member of the Governor’s NBA’s Task Force to help create interest in bringing pro basketball to town in the 1980s.

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