A history of RTB at UMN

Three seasons ago was the beginning of the “Row the Boat” era under P.J. Fleck.

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Kamaan Richards

Gophers Defensiveback Benjamin St-Juste leaps for an Auburn pass at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida on Wednesday, Jan. 1. Minnesota took the bowl game with a 31-24 win over the Auburn Tigers.

Brendan O'Brien

This season marks the fourth season P.J. Fleck will be the head coach for the Gophers’ football program, and his time at Minnesota has been anything but boring. With year four approaching, let’s take a look back at the first three seasons of the “Row the Boat” culture at Minnesota.

2017: 5-7, 6th in the Big Ten West

Like any program with a new head coach and culture, growing pains were a part of Fleck’s first season at the helm. After starting the season 3-0 against non-conference opponents, Minnesota lost five of its next six games against the Big Ten. With three games remaining, the Gophers needed to win two games to become bowl eligible but failed to do so, losing the last two weeks of the season against #17 Northwestern and #7 Wisconsin.

Minnesota finished 2-7 in the conference, giving up 30 or more points in six of those games. Despite the team’s finish, a silver lining for Fleck was his standing among former Gophers head coaches in their first seasons. Excluding Tracy Claeys who took over as the head coach midway through the 2015 season after Jerry Kill retired, Fleck is the only coach to win at least five games in his first season at Minnesota since John Gutekunst in 1986.

2018: 7-6, 5th in the Big Ten West

Fleck’s second season had similar shades as the first as the Gophers struggled against Big Ten foes. Minnesota again went 3-0 in the non-conference but also lost five of its first six conference games, giving up an average of 43.2 points during the stretch.

After below average quarterback play from Conor Rhoda and Demry Croft the previous season, the Gophers started Fleck’s second year with true freshman Zack Annexstad as the man under center. But Fleck had to make a switch to redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan in the midst of the losing streak after Annexstad injured his midsection in a 53-28 loss at Nebraska. Morgan has not missed a game as the starter since taking over.

On Nov. 3, Fleck decided more permanent change was necessary. Immediately coming off a 55-31 loss at Illinois, he fired defensive coordinator Robb Smith and tabbed Joe Rossi as the interim. In the final three games, the defense began to look different, giving up fewer points.

Being in the same position as it was the season prior, Minnesota not only won two of its final three games to become bowl eligible but also accomplished what seemed to be the impossible: beating Wisconsin to bring Paul Bunyan’s Axe back to Minnesota. The Gophers ended the season on a high note with the win in Madison and a victory in the QuickLane Bowl against Georgia Tech.

2019: 11-2, 2nd in the Big Ten West

If they believed in momentum of any kind, Fleck and the Gophers had plenty to work with heading into the third season of the “Row the Boat” era.

While the undefeated streak in non-conference games continued, Gophers fans were left holding their collective breath to the bitter end in each of these three games. Minnesota beat South Dakota State by only a touchdown in the opening week, stole a win on the final play of double overtime at Fresno State and barely escaped with a victory over Georgia Southern.

After the unconventional 3-0 start, the Gophers appeared to click on all phases once they began Big Ten play. The team rolled through its first five conference games to set up a match-up against fellow undefeated Penn State. With an upset ending in fans rushing the field and players securing the Governor’s Victory Bell, Minnesota moved to 9-0 and began to gain attention from the national polls and College Football Selection Committee like never before.

Only a week later was the hope of an undefeated season shattered for the team, as the Gophers fell to rival Iowa. But the Gophers still had several prizes in front of them — the Axe, the West Division crown and a chance at the Big Ten Championship as well as an appearance in the Rose Bowl. With all of this on the line against Wisconsin, the Gophers fell in an underwhelming 38-17 loss to end the regular season. Minnesota went on to beat Auburn in the Outback Bowl to finish 11-2 and capped off a season with many accomplishments the program had not had in recent memory.

2020: Check back in January

Minnesota will most certainly have the highest expectations it has seen since the beginning of Fleck’s tenure. While 2020 will be quite different compared to past years, the Gophers still face off against familiar foes with eight Big Ten games in its schedule. Fleck also has the opportunity to accomplish feats he has never reached before, including winning two trophy games against Michigan and Iowa.