A year ago, Minnesota’s 3-0 start seemed to be a sign that the magic first-year coach P.J. Fleck had performed in turning Western Michigan from Mid-American Conference doormat into a national story would continue immediately with the Gophers.
The team’s unbeaten season ended with a 31-24 defeat to Maryland, which upset Minnesota in Minneapolis behind third-string quarterback Max Bortenschlager. The Gophers quietly returned to the norm — mediocrity — in finishing Fleck’s first season 5-7.
Minnesota gets a chance to rewrite that script Saturday, when the Gophers visit Maryland Stadium. With three straight victories to start the 2018 season, Fleck and his players know what happened last fall doesn't matter.
“We’re a completely different team,” junior linebacker Carter Coughlin said Wednesday.
Still, the rebuilding of Minnesota under Fleck has parallels to what he did at Western Michigan, where he took a team that won a single game his first season in 2013 to 8-5 records his second and third years, before starting 13-0 in 2016 and losing to Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl in what turned out to be Fleck’s final game.
“A long time ago, I was told comparisons steal your joy, because there are so many expectations when you compare yourself to somebody,” Fleck said on Tuesday’s Big Ten coaches’ teleconference. “The one similarity we do have from our second year at Western Michigan is we played an enormous amount of freshmen.
"I think we’ve played 30 freshmen at this point. The 60 out of the 110 that are on our team are freshmen. We’re very, very young and very inexperienced at key positions. … I think the big difference is, in the Big Ten, being young and being 18 years old is a little different than being 18 years old in the Mid-American Conference in terms of the physicality up front.”
It hasn’t prevented Fleck from turning his offense over to a freshman walk-on quarterback, Zack Annexstad, who despite injuring his ankle after getting sacked on the first series in last week’s 26-3 win over Miami (Ohio) finished 12-for-20 for 142 yards and two touchdowns. For the season, Annexstad has completed 44 of 79 passes for 537 yards and four touchdowns, with no interceptions.
It hasn’t prevented Fleck with turning to freshman running back Bryce Williams after star senior Rodney Smith suffered a season-ending leg injury two weeks ago against Fresno State. Williams ran for 141 yards on 33 carries in the win over Miami (Ohio).
“We’ve invested ourselves in the young players. We’ve invested in developing the players on our roster. We’ve invested in the older guys on our football team even though there’s only eight scholarship seniors playing at some point,” Fleck said. “It’s a very unique experience, but I love how our team handles it. And they handle it in a very mature way.”
While there are 17 freshmen or redshirt freshmen on Minnesota’s two-deep on offense, including five starters, cornerback Terell Smith is listed as the only freshman starter on a defense that ranks second in the Big Ten and sixth in the Football Bowl Subdivision in yards allowed per game (256.3).
Conversely, Maryland has a total of eight freshmen or redshirt freshman on its offensive two-deep, with redshirt freshman quarterback Kasim Hill and kicker Joseph Petrino the only freshman starters on the whole team.
Asked if it’s more difficult to prepare for a team using that many new players, Maryland interim coach and offensive coordinator Matt Canada said Tuesday, “I think they’ve done a great job recruiting. They’ve got very good talent. I’m sure they’re going to play the best players.
“Sometimes you look at that and you’re playing freshmen out of necessity. Sometimes it’s because they’re the best players on your team. They’re 3-0, they’re playing at a very high level. They’re very, very efficient. They are playing extremely hard, something that I think.P.J.’s teams have done at Western when you watched them play.”
Fleck is trying to have his players not think about what happened last season against the Terps in Minneapolis, when Bortenschlager was making just his second career start after both Hill and Tyrrell Pigrome were sidelined with torn ACLs in the first three games. Bortenschlager completed 18 of 28 passes for 154 yards and two touchdowns.
Bortenschlager, who is back to being the third-team quarterback, also had an early rushing touchdown that seemed to have the Gophers on their heels after they lost starting safety Antoine Winfield Jr. early in the game with a season-ending hamstring injury. Senior running back Ty Johnson finished with 130 yards on 18 carries, including a 34-yard game-winning touchdown with 1:10 remaining.
Coughlin, who leads Minnesota with three sacks, said last year’s game — and the same 3-0 start — doesn’t factor into the preparation for his team’s trip to College Park. Two years ago on Maryland’s homecoming, the Gophers beat the Terps, 31-10, behind 144 yards and two touchdowns (including a 70-yarder) by Smith and an 82-yard interception return for a touchdown by Winfield.
“Ultimately it’s the fact that we’re not worried about the fact that we’re 3-0,” Carter said. “Last year our mindsets were still kind of focused on the fact that, ‘Oh we’re undefeated’ [or] whatever. This year we’ve really been focusing on each game being its own individual season. The way I look at it, we’re 0-0 and hopefully we’re going to be 1-0 after Saturday.”
That’s pretty much the approach Canada is taking with his team. Canada, who joined third-year coach DJ Durkin’s staff in January and took over when Durkin was placed on administrative leave in August, said he doesn’t think the Gophers will be coming to Maryland Stadium with revenge on their minds.
“Every year is so different, and every situation is so different,” Canada said. “We’re treating every week as a one-game season. That’s what this is for us. We’re coming off a game [a 35-14 loss to Temple] where we don’t feel we played as well as we could have. We’re focusing a lot on ourselves and trying to get our situation better. They’re 3-0 and they’ve played very, very well. It’ll be a tremendous challenge.”