Can PJ Fleck Change His Best?

Photo: Aaron Lavinsky - Star Tribune

Well, PJ Fleck did it.

On Saturday in Camp Randall, the Wisconsin Badgers were intent on stopping Mohamed Ibrahim. We’ve heard that before but unlike other teams before them, the Badger defense was rather successful in their mission, holding Mo to just 70 yards on 26 carries. It was the first time in 20 starts that Ibrahim failed to reach 100 yards rushing.

Fleck’s only option was to trust his redshirt Freshman QB, Athan Kaliakmanis, to throw the Minnesota Gophers to a victory. It was the only chance they had at winning.

PJ Fleck Changes His Best to Beat Wisconsin

In the year 2022, that sounds simple enough. But Fleck has been unwilling to lean on his air attack over the last few seasons. Instead of “adapt or die”, a phrase PJ loves to use, he should tout “run or die” as his program’s motto.

This weekend vs the Badgers, however, PJ took his own advice and he changed his best. He swallowed his pride and put the outcome in Wisconsin on the young arm of Athan Kaliakmanis, who was making just his 4th career start.

And guess what? Athan responded by throwing for 319 yards, 2 touchdowns and 0 interceptions. His QBR was a 91.9 (out of 100).

The Antioch, IL native made big throw after big throw and Fleck’s trust was rewarded with a 23-16 victory to make him 3-3 during his Minnesota head coaching career vs Wisconsin.

We’ve seen this before…’

But before we build Athan a statue outside the Bierman building, let’s remember who his head coach is. Because we’ve seen this before. Every time we think PJ Fleck has turned a corner in his offensive philosphy, he proves us wrong and finds any reason available to revert back to his “Run or Die” shell.

Look no further than earlier this season vs Michigan State. Tanner Morgan regained his 2019 form that day, completing 23 of 26 passes for 268 yards and 3 touchdowns. The Gophers won 34-7. The Big Ten West looked as good as won.

One week later, the air attack struggled to get off the ground vs Purdue, Morgan threw three interceptions. It was a disaster. In response, Fleck threw the entire passing playbook out the window for most of the next 7 weeks.

Playing scared has a cost

That ignorance culminated in PJ’s latest loss vs Iowa. I tried to stop him. But for the 2nd straight season, Fleck refused to grab the pig when it rightfully belonged to his team. Minnesota lost the turnover battle (0-2), but dominated time of possession (35:13 to 24:47) and vastly outgained the Hawkeyes on offense (399 yds to 280 yds).

But they fell behind early on the scoreboard and PJ refused to let Athan throw them to what should’ve been an easy comeback victory, instead trying to steal a close one with a late score and time running out. One mistake by Mohamed Ibrahim and the W was gone. Instead, it was a classic Fleck L vs Ferentz.

Is that what we can expect again? For this offense to cower at the next sign of adversity? Kaliakmanis is young and he’s going to make mistakes. His development and the future of the football program cannot afford to have PJ Fleck sabotage the passing game whenever Athan fails.

Why this time could be different.

To steal another euphemism from PJ, “failure is growth”. He needs to allow his young QB to grow from his failures. Can he do that? Can the stubborn, old school football coach “change his best”? Honestly, he doesn’t have a choice.

Sometime over the next month or two, the Minnesota Gophers will play in a bowl game, where they will have a chance to earn their 9th victory of the season. Win or lose, however, it will be the last time we see Mohamad Ibrahim in a maroon and gold uniform. Yes, he has another year of eligibility if he wants it. But all signs point to Ibrahim moving on, as he should.

No more Mo.

But after Mar’Keise Irving and Ky Thomas transferred out following the 2021 season, there isn’t a running back successor who can hold Mo’s jock strap. I mean, we’re talking about the greatest running back in school history. A history riddled with NFL running back talent. Handing the ball off a million times makes more sense when your running back is that elite. But he won’t be after this season.

So instead, the best move for Minnesota’s offense is to modernize and Fleck needs to center that modernization around his young gunslinger, Athan Kaliakmanis. Wide receivers, Dylan Wright and Daniel Jackson, proved vs Wisconsin that they are worthy weapons in an upgraded and more pass-heavy offense.

Expect Minnesota to be VERY active in the wide receiver transfer portal over the next month too, while we wait for bowl season to arrive. But if Fleck wants a top-tier receiver to land in Dinkytown, he’ll have to convince someone of a future where they get more than 3 targets per game and their QB more than 15 total attempts.

Hopeful for change

PJ Fleck’s teams will always value the run game on offense. He’s one of the younger coaches in college football but the way he wants to play is as old school as it gets. Control the clock, rack up time of possession and avoid huge mistakes. So it’s certainly plausible we see him revert back to his instinct to overfeed running backs.

But this is the first time as Minnesota Gophers head coach where his most talented offensive player is the quarterback. The first time it’s made sense for PJ to formulate his offensive strategy around a young gunslinger.

Because of that, I remain hopeful that Fleck will change his best as he gains more trust in Athan’s right arm. He and Kirk Ciarrocca made Kaliakmanis their #1 priority of the 2021 recruiting class for a reason. They brought him in to lead this program into the future.

Now that the kid appears ready to take his rightful seat on this offensive throne, all PJ has to do is give him the ball. Let Athan cook. If he does that, the future is bright. If not, he’ll transfer and so will all of his wide receivers.

In turn, PJ’s program will stall out and struggle to rise to greater heights than what we’ve already seen. So, what’s it going to be, Mr. Fleck? Adapt or die, right?

Eric Strack | Minnesota Sports Fan

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