Tom Dienhart, Senior Writer, December 15, 2017


P.J. Fleck hit the Twin Cities like a hurricane, a whirl of energy, enthusiasm and bombast. He implored anyone and everyone to ?row the boat!,? a mantra he used to make Western Michigan a Cotton Bowl team before departing for Dinkytown.

But Fleck?s first year with Minnesota was a mixed bag. He inherited a team that won nine games, but Fleck still viewed the Gopher job as a rebuild. There was no denying the issues on offense, especially for a passing game that is No. 13 in the league (126.1 ypg). The team?s 47 percent completion percentage is the worst in the conference and the Gophers had just nine TD passes. As a result, Minnesota is 12th in the Big Ten in total offense (308 ypg) and got shutout in consecutive games for the first time since 1950. Add it all up, and Minnesota saw its five-year bowl run end, and the program had its fewest Big Ten wins since 2011.

Still, the future twinkles with promise, as Fleck works his recruiting magic and the school preps to open some new glistening facilities.

Record: 5-7 overall; 2-7 Big Ten/6th West

High point: Things started well, as the Golden Gophers opened with a 3-0 mark, taking down Buffalo, Oregon State and Middle Tennessee thanks to outstanding play by the defense. But it was all downhill from there. Minnesota dropped its Big Ten opener–at home–to Maryland, which was disappointing. And the Gophers followed that belly flop with losses at Purdue and vs. Michigan State. The defeat in West Lafayette was painful, as Minnesota blew a late lead after seemingly having the game won.

Low point: There were many. But let?s go with the last two games, as the Golden Gophers were shutout by Northwestern (39-0) and Wisconsin (31-0) in dropping four of their last five contests. The game before those shutouts, Minnesota scored 54 points in a win vs. Nebraska. The Gophers had just 182 yards vs. Northwestern and 133 against Wisconsin. After the season, QB Demry Croft announced he was transferring.

Offensive MVP: RB Rodney Smith. He was one of the few steady offensive options, running 229 times for 977 yards and catching 17 passes en route to notching 1,447 all-purpose yards. Smith also ran back kickoffs, returning one for 100 yards for a TD. The 5-11, 210-pound junior was a consensus honorable mention All-Big Ten pick and helped Minnesota rank fourth in the Big Ten in rushing (182.4 ypg).

Defensive MVP: LB Thomas Barber. The 6-1, 233-pound sophomore emerged as a standout. The son of former star Gopher RB Marion Barber, Thomas led the team with 115 tackles while forcing three fumbles with an interception. Barber was named third-team All-Big Ten by the media.