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A visitor to P.J. Fleck's office on Monday sat down in one of the two chairs in front of the Gophers football coach's desk and noticed that a black vest featuring several bulging pockets and Velcro straps occupied the other chair.

"Bulletproof?'' the visitor asked, drawing laughter from Fleck.

"Nah, but it could be,'' Fleck chuckled before adding, "It's just a weighted vest.''

It's been that kind of season for Fleck and the Gophers, who returned to Minneapolis late Saturday night after suffering a 49-30 drubbing at Purdue. The loss dropped Minnesota to 5-5 overall and 3-4 in the Big Ten, leaving the Gophers a win short of bowl eligibility. The road gets tougher this week with a 3 p.m. Saturday game at Ohio State, the top team in the College Football Playoff Rankings.

Minnesota closes its season Nov. 25 at home against archrival Wisconsin. The Gophers will try to win Paul Bunyan's Axe for the third consecutive year, and the game could have bowl implications for both Minnesota and the Badgers (5-5).

The Gophers have lost two consecutive games, and defensive lapses have been at the heart of each. In a 27-26 home loss to Illinois, backup quarterback John Paddock needed only three plays to drive the Fighting Illini 85 yards, with the winning 46-yard TD throw coming with 50 seconds left. At Purdue, the Boilermakers used explosive play after explosive play to roll up 604 yards of offense.

The Gophers were without their top linebacker, Cody Lindenberg, on Saturday, and his backup, Maverick Baranowski, left the game for good after the first series. That left true freshman Matt Kingsbury and redshirt freshman Tyler Stolsky to see their first extensive action. Exacerbating the situation was the absence of injured safety Aidan Gousby, a contributor on passing downs.

"We were in a tough predicament last week, and not just one position. It was tough sledding for some of the safeties and linebackers," Fleck said. "You could see that with the performance that Purdue had."

As the Gophers prepare for the challenge that the star-studded Buckeyes present, the coaching staff first must figure out who will be available.

"Unfortunately, some of our best players are out, and it seems like every week it's just the inconsistency of who's actually out there," Fleck said. "Again, there's no excuses. I mean, 100% falls on the coaches and what we have to do to get better."

Getting better for the Gophers means finding the consistency that's been missing all season. When the offense has played well, the defense and special teams have faltered, as was the case in the 37-34 overtime loss at Northwestern. When the Gophers offense was called upon to gain one more first down to drain the clock, it couldn't do so against both Northwestern and Illinois.

Minnesota has five losses in a season for the first time since 2018, Fleck's second year as Gophers coach. A victory over Wisconsin in the 2018 season finale clinched a 6-6 record and a bowl trip, and this year's team might need to follow that same path. The Gophers have young players who are taking their lumps, and Fleck is hopeful that pays off in the future.

An example he uses is that of Jordan Howden, a safety who joined the Gophers as a walk-on in 2018. In the Gophers' 42-13 loss at Maryland that year, Howden was thrust into action after starter Antoine Winfield Jr. suffered a season-ending foot injury early in the game. It didn't go well for Howden, who Fleck estimated was "single-handedly responsible'' for three touchdowns.

"He came off that field probably saying, 'I'm never going play here,' " Fleck said.

Instead, Howden became an honorable mention All-Big Ten performer and a fifth-round draft pick of the New Orleans Saints who has started games as a rookie this season.

"He wouldn't have become the player he is if we didn't invest in him as early as we did,'' Fleck said.

In a season that won't match the expectations that many had for the Gophers, Fleck sees a chance to use the final two weeks to improve both for the present and the future.

"When we talk about development, you've got to be grateful for what you have now and then you got to be really excited for what's coming,'' he said. "I'm really excited for what's coming in the next 12 days. I'm really excited for next year."