MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck drew a chart for reporters at his news conference this week, attempting to demonstrate his belief that building a program brings ups and downs instead of the steady incline that might be expected.
The Gophers are currently on a decline, having lost five of their first six games in the Big Ten under Fleck. Their most recent loss was the most lopsided yet, a 33-10 defeat by Michigan. This all feels familiar to Fleck, who experienced a 1-11 finish in his first year at Western Michigan, even if it’s not sitting well with long-frustrated Gophers fans well aware the team went 9-4 under coach Tracy Claeys last season.
“We made a drastic change, right? Right, wrong or indifferent. Agree, disagree. We made a change,” Fleck said. “There’s going to be lots of peaks. There’s going to be lots of valleys. There’s going to be good times. There’s going to be bad times. There’s going to be doubt. There’s going to be criticism. I hear everybody. I get it. I mean, nobody likes to lose.”
The game on Saturday represents the best remaining chance for the Gophers (4-5, 1-5 Big Ten) to stop the slide. They host struggling Nebraska (4-5, 3-3), with both teams still trying to stay in the hunt for a bowl bid with the West Division race long out of reach.
The Huskers started in a different place than the Gophers when Mike Riley took over the once-dominant program in 2015, but they too can relate to the yo-yo effect of trying to rebuild.
Nebraska under Riley has bounced from 6-7 to 9-4 to this year’s four victories, which is the lowest total since Bill Callahan’s final season in 2007 when the Huskers went 5-7. That was the last time, and only the second instance in 49 seasons, that Nebraska missed out on a bowl game.
Riley, whose job status is in a tenuous place following the firing earlier this season of athletic director Shawn Eichorst, noted the program-building benefit of playing in a bowl even in a down season.
“For the team, it’s really good extra practices,” Riley said. “Some added time with younger guys in the program that maybe have been on the scout team that we can start to incorporate schematically with what we’re doing and where they might fit when they re-enter the competition for spring ball. You get a jump start on that.”
Here are some other key angles to follow on Saturday:
FIGHT FOR FIVE
Two years ago, the Gophers were invited to a bowl game despite a 5-7 record when there weren’t enough eligible FBS teams with the six-win guarantee. That could happen again this season, making a victory over Nebraska all the more vital. The NCAA uses Academic Progress Rate scores to determine bowl bids if there aren’t enough teams with six wins, and the Gophers are tied for fourth in APR score. Northwestern and Michigan are already bowl eligible. Air Force (4-5) is third. Duke (4-5) and Vanderbilt (4-5) are tied with Minnesota.
Nebraska wide receiver/kickoff returner J.D. Spielman will return to a familiar place in Minnesota, where he was a star at Eden Prairie High School. The son of Vikings general manager Rick Spielman is second on the team to Stanley Morgan Jr. with 40 catches and 593 receiving yards. Spielman, a redshirt freshman, set the school record with 200 receiving yards earlier this season against Ohio State and had five kickoff returns for 102 yards in last week’s overtime loss to Northwestern.
“I think he is extremely intelligent and his football IQ is extremely high,” Huskers quarterback Tanner Lee said. “I can tell he has been around the game a long time, and he cares a lot and he understand the game, so I think that will be a fun one for him.”
Fleck’s biggest takeaway from the loss to Michigan was the overall speed of the Wolverines. Michigan had three touchdowns of at least 60 yards and sacked Minnesota quarterback Demry Croft five times. Nebraska will be a challenge, too, starting with Spielman and Morgan.
“You can go on and on with guys that can really fly and really run,” Fleck said.
With the Gophers slipping to the Big Ten’s second-worst total offense in conference games, senior punter Ryan Santoso has become even more important. Santoso, who switched from kicker to punter before last season, is first in the conference with a 44.5-yard average on 49 punts. He has boosted his career average to 42.2 yards per punt, which ranks fourth in school history.