The 2019 Gophers football team featured a head coach who played wide receiver in the NFL, two future NFL wide receivers and an offense that set passing records and boasted one of the most efficient passing games in college football.
Three years later, the Gophers treat the forward pass like an old shirt that gets worn only when there are no other clean clothes.
From finishing top-10 nationally in passer rating and yards per attempt to hanging out with the service academies at the bottom of FBS standings in passing attempts. Except Army, Navy and Air Force don't pretend to have any interest in throwing the ball.
The Gophers completed one pass in the second half of a crushing 13-10 loss to Iowa last week. One.
Running back Mohamed Ibrahim poured his guts on the field in a magnificent performance that would have been celebrated endlessly had the Gophers not made a series of mistakes in the final minutes, including a fumble by Ibrahim.
The mistakes prevented them from winning. But it's impossible to ignore the fact that the Gophers have become so one-dimensional on offense, so monotonously reliant on the run, that they give themselves the slimmest margin for error.
The Gophers finished the 2021 season with the fourth-fewest pass attempts in major college football, ahead of only the three service academies.
This season, they rank only ahead of the three service academies, New Mexico and New Mexico State in that category.
One season can be dismissed as an anomaly. Two represents a trend.
Asked this week if his offense needs a philosophical change, P.J. Fleck said, "No."
"We just have to do it better," he said. "It's the same offense as 2019."
That sounds implausible based on our perception of 2019, but statistics support Fleck's assertion.
The Gophers attempted 24.8 passes per game in 2019. They are attempting 21.5 this season.
They passed on 36.5% of their plays in 2019, 31.5% this season.
That's not a major discrepancy.
Moral of the story: The Gophers no longer have Rashod Bateman and Tyler Johnson to turn limited passing into an explosive, balanced attack.
If this is indeed Fleck's preference, he better find more high-end receivers.
The falloff in talent at that position is staggering, especially given Fleck's background as a receiver and having produced two first-round draft picks — Bateman and Corey Davis at Western Michigan.
"When you have your No. 1 receiver out, that plays a role in it," Fleck said of injured Chris Autman-Bell. "It plays a role in the back of your mind of what you're going to do to go win games. It doesn't mean we don't have faith in our pass game."
Autman-Bell is a quality Big Ten receiver but losing one receiver should not cause the passing game to disappear. This is Fleck's sixth season. The roster is comprised of his recruits.
Fleck and his staff need to recruit better and develop better at the receiver position because relying so heavily on the running game is not a championship formula.
But what is the sales pitch to high school recruits or receivers in the transfer portal? That they promise to throw the ball more than Army?
The Gophers can beat mediocre-to-bad teams by running the ball almost exclusively. They have 16 wins the past two seasons combined. Only four of those wins came against teams that either finished 2021 with a winning record or currently have a record above .500 this season.
Of their eight losses in that span, six are against teams with winning records.
An elite defense and elite running game will only take them so far.
Fleck's old-school philosophy is ironic because he is forward-thinking in so many other areas as head coach. His offensive approach needs to evolve, too.
He'll never accept a scheme that passes more than it runs, or even a 50-50 split. But neglecting the passing game until make-or-break situations in a game is a recipe for failure.
A reliable passing game doesn't happen by flipping a switch. It needs to be nurtured. Quarterbacks and receivers require reps to develop timing, chemistry, rhythm. That's how they build confidence.
As it is, the Gophers must work so hard to score. Mistakes are more difficult to overcome. That was evident against Iowa.
The offense can't continue to be this one-dimensional. Ibrahim is an all-time great player, but he won't be around to carry them forever.