Gophers: 'We dug the foundation'

If the University of Minnesota football team ends up being annual contenders in the Big Ten West with PJ Fleck, it can point to two dates during last season where the turn started.

The first? Nov. 3. The Gophers, off to a 1-4 start in the Big Ten, gave up 55 points and 445 yards rushing to Illinois. It was Minnesota's fifth loss in six games to start the Big Ten season. In those six games, Minnesota was allowing 43.1 points per game.

At Big Ten Media Day Thursday, Fleck started to call the Illinois game a bad loss, then backed off and called it a big loss. Something had to change. Days later, Robb Smith was fired as the team's defensive coordinator. Fleck and Smith were close friends and it wasn't an easy move to make, but Fleck had to make a change.

He joked Thursday after the loss to the Illini, he had concerns about his job security.

"It wasn't pretty at those times in the Twin City area. Made sure the grass was cut back at our home and said ‘Hey, just make sure you keep the beds full of mulch because this thing could go on the market pretty quick.' End of the day, ended up turning the corner of that year, but Joe Rossi is a big part of it," Fleck said.

The change can't be as simple as one coach, but the numbers don't lie. In Minnesota's last four games with Rossi leading the defense, the Gophers allowed an average of 14.75 points per game. That includes just 15 in a historic win at Wisconsin, and one late offensive touchdown in the Quick Lane Bowl win over Georgia Tech.

The Yellow Jackets had the top rushing offense in the nation with their triple option. Minnesota limited Georgia Tech to 206 net yards, one of its lowest outputs of the season.

With youth all over the field last season, Fleck said the Gophers had to experience failing before they could turn the corner. They also had to grow up in a hurry, or as Fleck calls is, a "race to Mahturity."

"To have success and to become a champion, I feel like you need both spectrums. You have to fail enough to be successful and you have to go through some of those positive, shining moments," Fleck said. "The team last year had the entire spectrum. They failed enough to become successful if they were mature enough to handle it."

The second date? Nov. 24, an afternoon at Wisconsin that the Gophers and their fan base will never forget.

Wisconsin had defeated the Gophers 14 straight times. It's not much of a rivalry when it's one-sided, but the Gophers potentially changed the entire complexion of the battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe with a dominating 37-15 win over the Badgers.

It was their first win at Wisconsin since 1994, and it earned the Gophers their chance to face Georgia Tech in the Quick Lane Bowl.

"Coach Fleck talks about the way we build the program. We dug the foundation, then we started laying stuff down and now we're adding the framework," senior rush end Carter Coughlin said.

The Gophers headed home with the Axe, and were met plenty of fans and supporters when they got back to the football complex.

"Getting the Axe back meant a lot for both teams. I know maybe Wisconsin isn't happy that we have the Axe, but it's healthy for the rivalry," Fleck said. "After 14 straight years of one of the greatest rivalries in college football, being one-sided for 14 straight years, there's a lot of things that happen to people's minds, especially in our state. They doubt it more, they say we'll never, things like that. If that ever happens. Well winning that game, especially how we won, where we won it and hadn't won there since 1994, hadn't won the game in 14 straight years. Breaking that mold creates this hope for the future. That's what I hope our state of Minnesota understands is we're doing things that haven't been done in a very long time, maybe ever in some areas."

Fleck added last year was the first time in the history of the program that the Gophers won their final regular season game, as well as their bowl game.

Fleck talked extensively on Thursday about his "78 percent" theory, in which he and his coaching staff collected statistical data on what it takes to win. He found that if teams win the turnover margin, explosive plays and missed tackles. When you win all three of those categories, you win 78 percent of the time.

Last year when the Gophers won all three of those categories, they were 7-0. When they didn't, they were 0-6.

The Gophers, despite having 17 starters back from last season, are largely predicted to finish near the bottom of the Big Ten West as Fleck enters his third season. They have nine starters back on offense, and seven on defense.

National experts aren't high on the Gophers, but they don't care. Tyler Johnson came back for his senior year, passing on possible NFL options, because he thinks the Gophers have great potential this year. Fleck said his program is getting to the point where his best players are becoming the hardest workers, and that's how you build a program.

"Pretty much everybody on the team buys in all the time. It really comes from our leadership within the team. Players lead for elite teams, and I think that's important for us," Johnson said.

We'll find out later this fall if translates to contending for a division title.