Halfway Through the Season, the Future Still Looks Bright for Minnesota Football

Quinn Daley

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PJ Fleck always knew shaping Minnesota Football into a Big Ten Title contender was going to be a process. Despite giving up a 14-10 lead in a turnover-fueled 30-14 loss to the third-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes in Columbus on Saturday, Fleck managed to smile quite a bit in a game filled with Gopher turnovers and missed tackles. While Fleck easily could have been frustrated with his team’s miscues, he seemed to just be content enough with his young team hanging with a College Football Playoff contender for almost four quarters.

Nine Freshman started and fiercely competed with the Buckeyes. While the team will lose a third of their starters from Saturday to graduation after the season, Fleck has managed to give a considerable amount of playing time to underclassmen to condition them for the future and to set the bar for his expectations for his program for years to come. If Fleck can continue to give meaningful minutes to underclassmen this season and if they continue to play with ferocity, they’ll have more opportunity to learn from their mistakes, and the future should look bright for these young Gophers.

The Gophers have already shown signs of improvement from last season, most notably on offense. The offense no longer only consists of run-run-pass three and outs, and Kirk Ciarrocca has finally seemed to start opening up his offense as the team continues to recruit players for the system. Freshman tailback Mohamed Ibrahim had a career-high two rushing touchdowns and 157 yards rushing against Ohio States. True Freshman quarterback Zack Annexstad seems to be picking up momentum and experience throwing to two starting freshman receivers, Rashod Bateman and Demetrius Douglas. As well, on the offensive line, Freshman Daniel Faalele took over for Sam Schlueter at right tackle, and the line as a whole looked better for it. While the offense is still frustrating to watch at times, fans should take solace in the fact that they are improving from last season with youth on their side.

The defense has left a lot to be desired, but losing Antoine Winfield Jr. to a season-ending foot injury will do that.While the defense has received decent play from its front seven, the team starts three underclassmen in its defensive backfield. The defense will have to reload regarding its front seven after the season, but hopefully getting Winfield Jr, who is seeking his second medical redshirt, back after this season, and working him into a more experienced group of defensive backs should help the Gophers improve even more on defense next season.

The team has also shown a vast improvement according to the Football Power Index (FPI). The team’s offense is now ranked at 77th in the Country as opposed to 94th in 2017, the defense is 47th as opposed to 55th, and overall the team is ranked 55th, rising from 75th in 2017. While statistics don’t always tell the entire story, Minnesota Football supporters should be a little encouraged by the change the FPI shows.

While seeing progress with this year’s young team is a good sign, PJ Fleck has been a monster on the recruiting trail. After bringing in one of the best classes of the last two decades last year, Fleck has another top-30 ranked recruiting class on their way to the Twin Cities next year. While the recruits are mostly ranked as three out of five stars, they have the exact kind of character and potential Fleck is looking for to be a part of his program, and they could develop into stars.

The FPI predicts the Gophers may go bowling at the end of the season, predicting wins in three of their remaining games. Regardless of the outcome of this season, fans should hold their heads high, because this season seems to be setting up a bright future for the Minnesota Football program.