TCF Bank Stadium, Minneapolis Minnesota
The Buffalo Bulls last saw P.J. Fleck following a 38-0 Western Michigan shutout last November in Kalamazoo. Although WMU was on the 2017 Bulls schedule again, there seemed to be a pretty good chance that Fleck would be moving on if his team won the MAC championship and reached a New Year’s Day bowl.
They did, and he did, as MAC champ Western Michigan made it to the Cotton Bowl and Fleck accepted a job at a Big Ten school.
But wait! That school was Minnesota, and guess what! The Golden Gophers open 2017 at home against Buffalo.
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● Given that it’s the debut of Fleck and his staff, they will likely be incentivized to show they “belong” in a Big Ten setting.
● Few are likely to be hitting the field, but Fleck and company hit the (recruiting) ground running and, according to several services, owns a top 20 2018 recruiting class.
● Fleck takes over a program that finished fourth in the seven-team Big Ten West. The Gophers were 5-4 within the conference and 9-4 overall. Three of four Big Ten losses were by seven points or less. UM fell to a Rose Bowl-bound Penn State team 29-26 in overtime.
● Minnesota was 6-1 at home in 2016
● Fleck is the third head coach for UM in three years. He replaces Tracy Claeys, who had voiced support for players involved in a boycott following the suspension of 10 players prior to the Holiday Bowl. Minnesota ended up winning the game (17-15 over Washington State), but Claeys lost the job.
● The Gophers return 17 starters, but there are important questions at some key spots. Such is the case at quarterback, where Mitch Leidner is gone after throwing for 2,169 yards last year. He tossed eight TDs, but also registered eight interceptions. Fleck’s staff will be on a mission to correct that kind of turnover problem. Western Michigan and Wshington shared NCAA FBS top honors in 2016 with a plus-18 turnover margin.
● Conor Rhoda, with one start to his credit could get the start at QB for UM. He connected on 8 of 16 passes for 88 yards and one TD last year.
● The running back position should be a strength for Minnesota as Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks return. The former owned 240 carries good for 1,158 yards with 16 touchdowns. Brooks added 650 yards and five scores. The Gophers could miss some Leidner’s running talent as he netted 366 yards and tallied 10 TDs before last year before departing.
● Junior Rashad Still and sophomore Tyler Johnson are returning wide receiver targets. Senior tight end Nate Wosniak is a huge target at 6010, 275 pounds.
● In addition to Wosniak at TD, there are four more returning starters along the offensive line.
● Minnesota ranked 21st nationally in scoring defense last year. Linebacker Jonathan Celestin (6-10, 220, Sr) registered 80 tackles in 2016. Steven Richardson is back at DT, while safeties Duke McGhee and Antoine Winfield anchor the back end.
● UM has a big weapon at placekicker. Emmit Carpenter hit 22 of 24 field goal attempts on the way to Big Ten Kicker of the Year honors. He was 10 of 10 from beyond 40 yards.
● The Bulls are trying to bounce back from a 2-10 season that included some rough outings (besides Western Michigan). One of the keys to turning this around is producing more points. Buffalo was last among MAC teams with an average of 16.5 ppg. That’s not a good sign for a matchup against UM.
● The offensive line is a strength. All-MAC Third Team Center James O’Hagen anchors and experienced group that will be tested by a pretty good Big Ten defense.
● Tyree Jackson had some good moments, but he’ll want to pick up the completion percentage a bit (53.1% last year) and get a better TD-INT ratio (9-9 in 2016).
● Jackson is a capable runner, which should nicely supplement what the Bulls can get from RB Johnathan Hawkins.
● Kamathi Holsey is the only returning starter at wide receiver, and he ws limited to 19 receptions.
● Buffalo was 10th among MAC teams in scoring defenes, allowing 32.3 ppg. However, eight starters return, and the linebacking unit should lead the way. Khalil Hodge had a monster year with 123 tackles on the way to Second Team All-MAC honors.