P.J. Fleck, Gophers moving on from loss to Michigan

Head coach P.J. Fleck of the Minnesota Golden Gophers looks on in the first quarter of the game against the Michigan Wolverines at TCF Bank Stadium on October 24, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. ((Photo by David Berding/Getty Images))

There’s nothing normal about the 2020 college football season, and University of Minnesota football coach P.J. Fleck learned that first-hand Saturday night in his team’s 49-24 loss to Michigan at TCF Bank Stadium.

Special teams have been a struggle for the Gophers in recent years, but it went to an entirely different level in Saturday’s loss. Fleck all but said publicly after the game that kicker Michael Lantz, Grant Ryerse, a specialist for kickoffs, punter Mark Crawford and specialist Dragan Kesich were all unavailable due to COVID-19 reasons.

Minnesota’s only “healthy” kicker was Brock Walker, and he was limited after coming off sports hernia surgery. Their No. 2 punter is Matthew Stephenson, a graduate transfer from Middle Tennessee State.

“I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. Usually those are the guys that don’t get hurt, they have no contact. When they all get taken from you, that’s unique. That makes decision making a little bit different,” Fleck said Monday.

It led to Fleck having to go with high, short kickoffs, one of which Michigan returned 66 yards and used to set up a touchdown.

Stephenson also had an 18-yard punt in the first half, which led to Fleck opting for a fake punt on Minnesota’s next possession. Fleck said they got the look they wanted on the fake, but there was a missed block and Ko Kieft was stopped short of the first down.

The Wolverines also turned that into a touchdown, and a 35-17 lead at the half.

“That’s what 2020 is about, you’ve got to make decisions as a head football coach. The fake punt, if it works it’s a great call. If it doesn’t, it’s a horrible call. Horrible call, and that one is on me. That’s what 2020 is bringing,” Fleck said. “It’s bringing a lot of adaptation, a lot of change, it’s testing some of your philosophical approaches and maybe you have to change some of those this year to adapt to what you’re being dealt with.”

Fleck’s greater concern for the seven guaranteed games left is the Gophers’ defense. Having to replace seven starters from last season, the Wolverines ran for 256 yards Saturday night, averaging 8.6 yards per carry.

After Preston Jelen blocked a punt that set up Tanner Morgan hitting Ko Kieft for the first touchdown of the season, Zach Charbonnet answered, running 70 yards untouched for a score to tie the game 7-7. The Wolverines had five of their six offensive touchdowns come on the ground.

The team took Sunday morning to watch film, correct mistakes and wipe the slate clean for the week. Fleck isn’t changing his approach from what has worked in the past. The Gophers were 0-1 in the Michigan season.

“It’s a one game season just like we’ve always done. One game season, we lost the Michigan season, period. That’s over, done with. We took all the information we possibly could, we learned as much as we possibly could from that game and then you move on,’ Fleck said.

They’re moving onto the Terrapins, and the Gophers will go to College Park 20.5-point favorites after Maryland opened its season with a 43-3 loss to Northwestern.