P.J. Fleck describes the Gophers football team as a developmental program, one in which players take incremental steps toward improvement and ultimately success. Going hand in hand with the emphasis on development is another Fleck tenet: Failure means growth.
"You've got to go through the failing,'' the Gophers coach said Monday. "There's a step of being a developmental program. You cannot skip failing. I'm not talking about spring-game failing. I'm talking about live game reps. Failing is the only way you grow.''
Fleck and the Gophers will find out if the failings of last weekend's 31-13 loss at then-No. 20 North Carolina result in growth on Saturday night at Northwestern as Minnesota (2-1, 1-0) returns to Big Ten play against the Wildcats (1-2, 0-1).
There's a lot with which to work in the failure/growth category stemming from the result in Chapel Hill.
The Gophers watched the Tar Heels rain down big plays of 46, 55 and 39 yards on their way to building first-half leads of 14-0 and 21-3. Minnesota, meanwhile, mustered only one touchdown for the second time in three games. The Gophers converted two North Carolina turnovers to only three points, and when they trailed 21-13 in the third quarter with the ball at the Tar Heels 34-yard line, backup quarterback Cole Kramer, in for cramping starter Athan Kaliakmanis, promptly threw a first-down interception.
"There's a lot of things that we could have done way better to make it a better football game on our end, and all you have to do is execute,'' Fleck said. "I think our players saw that on film, and that's what's really hopeful.''
On Saturday in Evanston, Ill., the Gophers won't be facing a top 20 team riding high behind a quarterback like North Carolina's Drake Maye. They'll meet a downtrodden Northwestern team that's trying to recover from an offseason hazing scandal that cost Wildcats legend Pat Fitzgerald his coaching job and prompted team officials to make defensive coordinator David Braun the interim coach.
Northwestern opened the season with a 24-7 loss at Rutgers, rebounded to beat Texas-El Paso 38-7 and then fell 38-14 at then-No. 21 Duke. Fleck sees a Wildcats team that has talent in players such as wide receiver A.J. Henning, a transfer from Michigan who's a threat as a rusher, receiver and returner.
"This is a huge challenge,'' Fleck said of Henning, who amassed 1,279 all-purpose yards in three seasons at Michigan. "He's one of the most dynamic players in the Big Ten. They use him in all facets of what they do offensively. Special teams, they're going to do everything they can to get the ball in his hands as many times as they can.''
Fleck also sees a team rallying around its new coach.
"You can tell that team has come close together,'' he said. "You can tell there is no quit in that team. They play their tail ends off from the start till the end.'
While he has an eye on Northwestern, Fleck puts his focus on his team and what it must do to clean things up, especially for an offense that's produced only four touchdowns — a pair of 2-yard runs by Darius Taylor, a 1-yard sneak by Kaliakmanis and Daniel Jackson's spectacular catch for the tying touchdown against Nebraska.
The run game, with true freshman Taylor developing into the lead back, has produced 466 yards over the past two games. Taylor and the offensive line get a big share of the credit.
"I thought they played tremendously,'' Fleck said of the offensive line. "And I thought if you go back and you just watch the run game, we controlled the line of scrimmage. … I felt really good about where we were coming out of that game. And again, you're finding out a lot about your football team as you go through and play.''