This isn’t PJ Fleck’s best Gophers team. That distinction remains firmly entrenched in the 2019 team, which won 11 games and shared the Big Ten West title and lost a conference title game berth in a tiebreaker.
But this is the biggest missed opportunity of his six years in charge – something that’s both frustrating at the moment and regrets harden over time.
The schedule will never be so lenient. The West, mediocre as it has been in various places over the years, may never be so bad again.
At least in 2019, when the dust had settled, the Gophers could say their only two losses were 10 wins in Wisconsin and 10 wins in Iowa.
This year, with so many gifts at hand and the confidence of four straight wins early in the season, the Gophers let their season be defined by two games in particular: A 20-10 homecoming loss to Purdue, which haunted them for weeks , and a 13-10 home loss to Iowa on Saturday just as they were about to catch up.
Patrick Reusse and I spoke about the Iowa game on Monday’s Daily Delivery podcast, where I doubled down on my Saturday observation on Twitter: Fleck and former Vikings coach Mike Zimmer are very different people, but almost identical game-day coaches.
Both play not to lose.
Fleck’s conservative nature, a hallmark of his Minnesota tenure, let the Gophers down on Saturday. Could they have won the game like that? Secure. But it leaves little room for error, and the Gophers made two big ones on Saturday with fourth-quarter turnovers.
The second came on a third and 7 of Iowa’s 33. Going downwind, the Gophers probably needed at least one more first down for a field goal. So they attempted a pass… and it was intercepted. If you’re mad at the pass, don’t be.
Be frustrated with the inability and/or unwillingness to develop a consistent passing attack all season. If you don’t pass by you have to, you can’t pass when you have to.
And here’s the reality of the Gophers season: Their seven wins are against teams with a combined record of 18-58 and their four losses are against teams with a combined record of 30-14. Fleck’s formula has tended to work well against the bad teams and not so much against the good ones.
Or, in the case of losses in Purdue, Illinois and Iowa this year, the least terrible in the Big Ten West.
Their 2023 opponents have a combined record of 79-51 this season, including undefeated Michigan and Ohio State. In 2024, the Big Ten will welcome powerhouses UCLA and USC.
It will never be as easy as this year, which makes it all the more painful.