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Gophers' Fleck fires defensive coordinator Robb Smith

Nov 3, 2018; Champaign, IL, USA; Minnesota Golden Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck has a discussion during the third quarter against the Illinois Fighting Illini at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

ST. PAUL -- Robb Smith's dismissal had been a possibility for a while, but with Saturday's 55-31 loss at Illinois, it became a reality for the Gophers' defensive coordinator.

“This is not something that you just decide to do,” head coach P.J. Fleck said with a quick snap of his fingers Monday morning, Nov. 5. “This is something that you do everything you can to fix it for as long as you can because he’s a very good football coach.”

But while Fleck had spent more time with the defense since a rough loss at previously winless Nebraska three weeks ago, the Gophers continued to give up heaps of yards and a ton of points -- 1,787 yards and 139 points to Nebraska, Indiana and Illinois.

On Saturday, the Illini racked up 430 rushing yards and five touchdowns in excess of 30 yards in a 55-31 win over Minnesota, which went to Champaign as a nine-point favorite. While starting the Big Ten season 1-5, the Gophers have surrendered an average of 43.2 points a game.

Overall, Minnesota (4-5) has allowed 32 points (97th nationally) and 424 yards (91) a game. In Big Ten play, the Gophers rank 13th out of 14 teams in total yards and scoring defense. Illinois, which is dead last in both those categories, accepted the resignation of defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson five days before playing the Gophers.

Fleck said the decision to fire Smith was made with athletics director Mark Coyle. He told his staff and then players during a 30-minute team meeting Sunday. “We talked ... about the decision-making,” Fleck said. “We talked about that it wasn’t because of them, it was for them."

Defensive line coach Joe Rossi will be interim defensive coordinator for the rest of the season. He also will assume Smith’s duties as linebackers coach.

"Sometimes in life, you have to make some of the hardest decisions that maybe you even create on your own," Fleck said of his message to his players. "If you want to be in a leadership role, you’re going to have to make very difficult decisions. It’s not about being popular, it’s about doing what’s right and what needs to be done.”

Fleck said he assesses performances based on three factors: coaching, schemes and players. While he defended the schemes after the Illinois game, and stood up for all of his assistant coaches after the Nebraska game, he didn’t say Monday when coaching becomes the primary reason for poor play.

“This is over a long period of time as you evaluate that,” Fleck said. “I’m the one that does that. I’m the one that keeps the notes and the books on all of that, about how I feel at that particular time and what are our issues and what do we have to fix?”

Since the Big Ten opener, the Gophers have struggled to stop spread offenses featuring dual-threat quarterbacks. It started with Maryland rushing for 315 yards in a 42-13 win in the conference opener on Sept. 22.

Then the Cornhuskers had three rushers over 100 yards, including quarterback Adrian Martinez. Finally, Illinois quarterback A.J. Bush rushed for 127 yards, and running back Reggie Corbin gained 213.

The U defense has had reoccurring struggles to fill gaps in run defense and make tackles in space. Those issues were prevalent in all three defeats.

“It’s a new voice, it’s a different direction,” Fleck said of Rossi. “It’s a different way somebody calls a game. This isn’t a wholesale change where our defense is going to look completely different.”

Rossi was a defensive coordinator at Rutgers (2014-15), Maine (2009-11) and Thiel College (2003-06). Fleck said it’s too soon to know if Rossi will be a candidate to do the job permanently.

“We have to be able to keep it simple for our players, we have to be sound and we've got to play fast,” Fleck said. “We've got to put our players in the best position to be successful. That’s what I’ve told Joe, and that’s what I want to see out of him.”

Briefly

Gophers leading rusher Mohamed Ibrahim (undisclosed injury) should be able to return to face Purdue at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium, Fleck said. The redshirt freshman running back had 17 carries in the first half against Illinois but only one in the second half. ... It's unclear if left tackle Donnell Greene (head) will be available to play, Fleck said. The senior missed his first game this season at Illinois.

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