2017 was certainly a year, wasn’t it? There were so many different things to pay attention to that the return of Gopher Football under P.J. Fleck was just what the doctor ordered for Gopher fans, even if we knew the warning flags were there for a bit of a problematic season. Some of us were a bit too optimistic (meekly raises hand) and though that we were due for a bit of luck, and that a few very thin positions (OL, DB), inexperienced positions (QB), or unproven positions (WR) would all show signs of improvement.
By the end of the season, the OL was patched together and fans were praying that we could keep enough warm bodies on the field to avoid burning a redshirt from a couple of our true Freshmen, the DB Corps was at the point of moving a WR over, QB play was erratic all season, and the WR position continued to frustrate Gopher fans wtih the lack of production (in spite of a number amazing plays from Tyler Johnson). The team was able to patch these holes in the wall with paper and spackle at times, but only enough to go 5-7 on the year. We did put a couple absolute beatings on teams that ended up jettisoning their coach (Hello, Oregon State and Nebraska), shot ourselves in the foot a couple times in games we had a chance to win (Hello, Maryland, Purdue, and Iowa), and just flat-out got murdered a couple times. That’s just the way the tennis ball bounces, I guess.
There really isn’t much of a point in sugarcoating things, is there? Things weren’t ideal on offense this past season. That is the right way to describe a season in which you finish 123rd of 130 in Total Offense, and 108th of 130 in Scoring Offense, right? In spite of the best efforts of the RB group of Rodney Smith, Kobe McCrary, and the beaten body of Shannon Brooks, things just didn’t go well at all. It still amazes me that teams will cheat a bit to stop the run when you show absolutely no inclination or ability to throw the ball. Making matters worse is that when Conor Rhoda was in the game instead of Demry Croft, teams were completely ignoring him and just focusing on blasting the RB. By the end of the season against Northwestern and wisconsin, it was pretty easy to see that teams just planned on playing 11-on-2/3 (depending on how many of our RB were on the field) and just assign half the team to hitting each guy. It was stunningly effective, unfortunately. Minnesota finished the year completing an astonishing 47.2% competion percentage, buoyed by the amazing 54.1% of Rhoda’s polished passing game. I don’t mean to beat a dead horse, but we only got above 50% in 3 B1G Games: Maryland (who were keyed on the RBs), Michigan State (who jumped out to a massive lead and let Demry Croft pick apart their prevent defense), and Nebraska (who was just not good at all). The next highest number? 44% against Purdue. I really should stop, but this was just bad and it made me drink and feel even more sad than I usually do. It was not a fun year to watch the offense.
Defensively, things were really rather meh all season. The team finished 36th and 31st in Scoring and Total Defense, down from 21st in both in 2016, but something just didn’t feel right. The run defense just wasn’t as stout, and I believe a big part of that could be attributed to the loss of Antoine Winfield Jr. for the season in the Maryland game. Teams were able to get nearly 5 yards a pop against us this year, and it made large parts of the season just dreadful. I do feel that a part of the problem was that the offense didn’t really do the D any favors, and it wore down a bit as the games and season progressed. By the time we ran into Northwestern and the clownfraud trasche that is 2017 wisconsin, there was just nothing left in the tank.
If I’m honest, the one thing that I really hoped would help the team in 2017 was the special teams unit. And almost on cue, that let me down too. Emmit Carpenter went from 22/24 on FG in 2016 to 14/20 in 2017, although we didn’t make life easy for him. Departing SR P/LB Ryan Santoso never really lived up to the lofty expectations I had for him when he transitioned to the spot to replace Living Legend Peter Mortell. And while Rodney Smith did return a kickoff for a TD (against Nebraska, of course), things just continued in malaise for this unit too. It’s almost like everything was stuck in neutral for the entire team this year.
Looking back, I can’t help but be really meh about the 2017 Gopher team. While the results on the field took a huge jump back from the 9 WINS! of 2016, there wasn’t anything off it to really be concerned about. There were no really major issues that needed to be weeded out, and the commitment of the team to give back to the community was great to see (even if it was occasionally under the watchful eye of Norries Wilson). The one thing I’ll remember for a very long time was sitting in Kinnick Stadium at the end of the 1st quarter. As we stood up to wave at the kids (because they’re kids, and kids aren’t always terrible even if they cheer for Iowa), we saw the entire Gopher team head out on the field and turn toward the hospital and wave. It was the perfect hokey symbolism that I needed, and in spite of that loss and a few others that would follow, it made me pretty happy about how things were going as a whole for the program following a bit of a complete clusterfuck. Now that the 2017 football season is over, I’m going to hang on to that positive and start dreaming about how things will be going forward. With P.J. Fleck in charge I get the feeling that things will be a bit more rosy in the long-term, and I can’t wait to enjoy the ride.