Disappointing loss to Badgers just part of the process
Like many of you, I suspect, I’m struggling to put the University of Minnesota’s 2019 football season into perspective in light of Saturday’s disappointing 38-17 beatdown by the Badgers.
If someone had told me before the season started that the Gophers would go 10-2, I would have taken that in a heartbeat. That being said, in light of the lop-sided loss that costs the program the Big Ten West Division Championship, the right to play in the Big Ten Championship game, a trip to the Rose Bowl AND Paul Bunyan’s Axe, suddenly 10-2 is ringing a little hollow.
Let’s take a look at what we know: The Gophers took advantage of a soft schedule to pad their resume. The win over Penn State, another program on the rise, was legit and made believers out of many. However, losses to both arch-rivals (Iowa & Wisconsin) shows just how far the program has yet to go.
When Barry Alvarez took over the football program at the University of Wisconsin back in 1990, Wisconsin was coming off eight consecutive losing seasons, and the best record the Badgers had ever managed in the previous 18 years was 7-4, which they had managed to achieve twice.
Under Aalvarez, who came from Lou Holtz’ staff at Notre Dame, the Badgers went 1-10, 5-6 and 5-6 in his first three seasons. It wasn’t until year four that the Badgers emerged, going 10-1-1, winning the Big Ten and the Rose Bowl. Since then, Wisconsin has had just two losing seasons in 27 years, appearing in 25 bowl games, including three Rose Bowl victories.
When P.J. Fleck was hired at Minnesota, the Gopher football program was in nowhere near as bad of shape as Wisconsin was when Alvarez took over. However, 10 players from the Gopher football program were involved in an off-field incident that would result in interim head coach Tracy Claeys, who had been an extremely popular defensive coordinator under previous Head Coach Jerry Kill, being released in favor of Fleck.
Between the off-field incident and the change in head coaches, a number of upperclassmen left the Gopher program. Between attrition and injury, the Gophers went through spring football in 2017 with just six offensive linemen, and it’s a minor miracle that the Fleck was able to fashion a 5-7 season.
You may recall Fleck saying, to anyone who would listen, that his 2018 team was the youngest team in the country, and yet, year two brought a winning record at 7-6, the upset of the Badgers, which returned Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the first time in 14 years, and eventually, a bowl game win over Georgia Tech.
Fast forward to Saturday: there are the Gophers, sitting at 10-1 and playing for the outright Big Ten West title, starting just two seniors on offense and none on the offensive line. What difference does that make?
The Badgers don’t rebuild, they reload, and on Saturday that meant an offensive line anchored by two redshirt seniors and two redshirt juniors; offensive linemen who’ve been in the Badger program for at least four years. By contrast, the Gophers have none.
Defensively, the Gophers started six Seniors but were forced to supplement that unit with three graduate student transfers. Wisconsin meanwhile played eight players on defensive who were at least redshirt juniors.
Where I’m going with all this is that it was probably foolhardy to think the Gophers were going to beat either Wisconsin or Iowa, at least not yet.
The good news is that the Gophers have come a long way in a relatively short period of time, and the future, with P.J. Fleck under an extended contract, appears to be bright. Saturday’s loss, while disappointing, shouldn’t erase the many good things that emerged this season, and as long as Fleck and the Gophers learn from it, it should only serve to make them better, going forward.