P.J. Fleck coached the first half of a blowout loss at Ohio State as if he had no faith in his players. A day later, Kevin O'Connell played it safe at the wrong times, creating an opportunity for Denver to pounce.
Any coach's game management is always ripe for second-guessing — or first-guessing — and the head coaches of the state's two most prominent football teams left themselves open to criticism this past weekend. The focus of Football Across Minnesota this week is on their decision-making as the teams head into high-profile games: Fleck's Gophers vs. the Badgers on Saturday, O'Connell's Vikings vs. the Bears on Monday Night Football.
O'Connell's strategic decisions were far less egregious and annoying than Fleck's, and he took a big gamble with a well-executed fake punt in the fourth quarter. Let's start with what we saw Sunday night in Denver.
A six-point (at least) swing: With 1 minute, 19 seconds left until halftime and his team holding a 10-6 lead, O'Connell opted to punt on fourth-and-1 at the Denver 48-yard line. The Vikings were punishing the Broncos with the running game the entire half, and Denver had the lowest-ranked defense in the NFL. The odds of converting in that situation were high. A field goal, at least, was there for the taking. Instead, Russell Wilson took advantage, hit on four completions and the Broncos kicked a field goal to cut the lead to one.
Instead: O'Connell often notes that he likes to coach aggressively and that was a situation to show it instead of punting. The running game was humming. Keep your foot on the gas.
Need a knockout: Leading 17-15 late in the fourth quarter, the Vikings were driving for what could have been a knockout touchdown. The fake punt to keep the drive alive was a thing of beauty. Once his offense reached the Denver 12, O'Connell called back-to-back running plays that gained no yards and after a third-down incompletion, the Vikings settled for a field goal. O'Connell was too cautious in that moment. Yes, the field goal required Denver to score a touchdown, and there's reason to have confidence in his defense, which had bottled up Wilson. But we've seen Wilson do what he did too many times, and his late-game magic predictably led to another game-winning drive.
Instead: Go for the killshot, KOC. A coach needs to be thinking six points there, not three. That field goal turned Wilson into a touchdown-seeking QB and that's playing to his strength.
No faith: Unlike O'Connell, Fleck didn't face pressure decisions in a tight game that went down to the wire. He coached timidly from Saturday's start with game management that looked alarmingly defeatist. Twice he punted on fourth-and-5 from inside the Ohio State 45. He also either called for or signed off on running plays on third-and-long with his fifth-string tailback against a stout defense. Fleck's explanation for his ultra-conservative approach showed no awareness that his team needed to pull out all the stops to have any chance as four-touchdown underdogs.
The Gophers were overmatched in every single facet against the second-ranked Buckeyes. The odds of an upset were minuscule. Fleck's team had nothing to lose by being super aggressive, and yet he managed the game as if the opponent was Iowa or some other Big Ten West team with a weak offense. In explaining his decisions, Fleck theorized Ohio State might "screw up" when pinned deep in their end and that if "you don't get it [on fourth down] and they go down and score, the game's over."
Instead: What if his team had converted on those fourth downs? Did he even consider that outcome?
No fight: Trailing 13-0, the Gophers punted and pinned the Buckeyes at their own 3-yard line with 1 minute, 55 seconds left. Fleck had two timeouts. The defense held the Buckeyes to short gains on first and second down. Fleck let the clock run, declining to call a timeout to try and steal a late possession. Apparently, he was content to go to halftime trailing 13-0. Predictably, the Buckeyes scored two touchdowns in a matter of minutes to start the second half, and all the risk-averse decisions did not prevent a blowout.
Instead: Call the timeout there and force the issue. That at least sends a we're-here-to-fight message to your team before halftime. Fleck's strategy left his fan base dismayed, even the most loyal supporters. His reputation as a conservative coach was already well-established before the game, but that first-half approach was inexcusably safe.
No boldness: The Gophers defense gave up 49 points to Purdue the week before. They have one of the worst third-down defenses in college football. They were missing key players because of injuries and facing an Ohio State offense filled with explosive playmakers. This wasn't going to be a defensive struggle. The Gophers had to take risks to create scoring opportunities because the Buckeyes can accelerate like a sports car at any time.
"My job is to manage the game, to always keep my team in the game," Fleck said.
Instead: Saturday was the perfect occasion for Fleck to go against his norm and keep caution out of his playbook for this one.
Here's to less caution and more bold decisions against the Badgers.
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More Ty time needed
Denver linebacker Josey Jewell overpowered Ty Chandler's blitz pickup enough to hit Joshua Dobbs' arm as he was releasing a pass, causing the ball to flutter for an interception in the fourth quarter that allowed the Broncos to kick a field goal in their 21-20 comeback win.
That play reinforced that playing running back requires more than just carrying the ball. That said, the Vikings should shift more of Alexander Mattison's carries and playing time to Chandler.
The difference in Chandler's explosiveness is obvious when he's in the game. He has a burst that Mattison lacks. Both were effective against the Broncos, but Mattison's third-quarter fumble was the pivotal moment in the game.
Chandler gained 31 yards on a fake punt in the fourth quarter and had nine other carries for 42 yards (4.7 yards average). He also caught four passes for 37 yards.
O'Connell needs to find more ways to get Chandler touches to take advantage of his big-play potential.
"It seems like when you get the ball in Ty Chandler's hands, good things happen," Dobbs said. "As an offense, Ty Chandler is another playmaker. For me and KOC, let us get the ball in Ty's hands as much as we can. I am excited to see him continue to grow and make plays for us."
. . .
In lieu of kicking
Hutchinson's Andy Rostberg coaches one of the most successful high school programs in the state. The veteran has guided his team back to the Class 4A Prep Bowl again this season.
The Tigers are a supremely talented and physical outfit. And when they score, here's a guarantee: They will go for a two-point conversion.
Every. Single. Time.
Just ask the coach.
"The biggest reason is, we haven't had a kicker," Rostberg said. "It's not like we're not trying [to find one]. I mean we are beating the bushes."
Hutchinson has not attempted a field goal since 2014. The Tigers kicked an extra point early in the 2018 season but none since. They have converted 200 of 294 two-point conversions in that span.
Sophomore Will DeMeyer handles kickoffs, but that's the extent of his kicking duties.
"Here's the deal, though," Rostberg said. "I'm thinking the streak is going to end next year. He's not too bad."
Rostberg insists he's not opposed to kicking.
"We have kids that come out and say, 'Can I kick for you?'" he said. "We'd love that. And then they come kick and I'm like, 'Oh boy, this is not going to work.'"
The Tigers have been so successful at converting two-point conversions that Rostberg sticks with that approach. They went 7-for-7 in the semifinals against North Branch. Charlie Renner converted all seven on runs.
"It was the same play," Rostberg said. "We ran it seven times in a row and got it every time."
By the end, quarterback Logan Butler would jog halfway to the sideline after the touchdown, tell Rostberg the play he wanted to run and give him the thumbs-up signal.
"I'd give him the thumbs-up back," Rostberg said.
. . .
- Savion Hart: St. Thomas Academy senior sparked a comeback vs. Alexandria with 227 yards rushing and three touchdowns on 25 carries to propel his team to the Class 5A Prep Bowl.
- Beau Wiersma: Kingsland senior rushed for 297 yards and four touchdowns and collected 14 tackles, including three for loss, to lead his team to the Nine-Player Prep Bowl.
- Nathan Thode: Hutchinson's Mr. Versatile rushed for 171 yards and four touchdowns and recovered a fumble and grabbed an interception as the Tigers advanced to the Class 4A Prep Bowl.
He said what?!
"We've learned this lesson before. Playing good football teams, you can't give them three extra opportunities and we'll have to continue to stress the importance of ball security and that's what we're going to do."
— Vikings coach Kevin O'Connell on turnovers once again costing his team a chance to win.
Numbers to know
- 0: Wins for Kingsland from 2013-2016, and now the undefeated Knights will play for the Nine-Player state title.
- 3: Consecutive games with a rushing touchdown and a passing touchdown for Joshua Dobbs, the first Vikings quarterback to do that three games in a row since Daunte Culpepper in 2002.
- 14: Lost fumbles by the Vikings, which leads the NFL.
- 56: Passing touchdowns for East Ridge alum Zach Zebrowski for Central Missouri this season, setting a Division II single-season record.
. . .
Grab your popcorn
Gophers vs. Wisconsin, 2:30 p.m. Saturday. Yes, the season has been disappointing for both teams, but this rivalry game is never meaningless. The Gophers need one more win to gain bowl eligibility, but retaining Paul Bunyan's Axe is more important.
An important 48 hours for:
Centennial coach Mike Diggins and Edina coach Jason Potts. Centennial is playing in the state championship game for the first time since 1984. Edina has never played in the final game. Emotions will be soaring for both teams when they meet in the Class 6A Prep Bowl on Friday. The two coaches have done a masterful job of having their players ready for each challenge and formulating game plans that have enabled their teams to reach the biggest stage.
. . .
A FAM FINAL WORD
Fourteen high school teams will play for a state championship this week. The Gophers face their primary rival on Saturday. The Vikings have a division game against the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football. The opportunities at hand carry different meaning and significance, but this is an important week for all.
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Thank you for reading Football Across Minnesota (FAM), my weekly column that tours football topics in our state from preps to pros. I'll publish this each Tuesday morning in time for your lunch-hour reading, and you can find all the previous FAM columns right here. I appreciate feedback, so please reach out anytime. Thanks again — Chip (@chipscoggins on X)