Fleck, Gophers still can't solve Iowa conundrum
MINNEAPOLIS — The reminders were plastered all over the Larson Football Performance Center this week, images of the elusive swine that has yet to make his way back to the Twin Cities in 6 years and counting.
“The main focus was ‘the pig, the pig, the pig,'” all week, Minnesota right tackle Blaise Andres said Tuesday.
A platitude straight out of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” The Golden Gophers spend each Tuesday of rivalry game weeks discussing the upcoming trophy at stake, and Floyd of Rosedale needed little introduction even for players who hadn’t grown up in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
For all coach P.J. Fleck and his fledgling efforts here have produced, he’s nowhere near solving an Iowa team that’s now on a 6-game win streak in this 129-year-old series. Which is ironic, because the Hawkeyes — who handed Minnesota an embarrassing 35-7 loss Friday night at TCF Bank Stadium — aren’t much of a mystery.
Iowa is the pesky kid who’s always in the same youth basketball league as you, and you always end up guarding him. He doesn’t do anything shifty, but he rarely misses no matter how hard of defense you play, he’s constantly boxing you out, and you rarely get a good look against him.
Fleck hasn’t in four tries now.
It’s really tough to look at any FBS game in 2020 that doesn’t feature Ohio State, Alabama or Clemson this year and project with confidence. There was an argument to be had that Minnesota just isn’t up to snuff defensively this year and it’s going to be a long winter no matter what. There was just as credible a notion that the Gophers’ stomping of Illinois last week was just what it needed to grow up in a hurry — just in time to give Iowa nightmares on Friday the 13th.
It’s a lot easier to make conclusions with actual data. And what we saw in Minneapolis proves this: Iowa is better than we thought, and Minnesota is quite the opposite.
“We didn’t deserve to bring [Floyd of Rosedale] back here, didn’t play well enough to get it,” Fleck said. “This is another scar. And scars remind us of where we’ve been to get to where we want to go.”
This one is hard to fathom in some respects. Total yardage was pretty much even — 347-312 in favor of the visitors from Iowa City. Rashod Bateman had as many receiving yards as Iowa’s entire team. He had to fight for every inch, but Mohamed Ibrahim topped 140 yards for the 4th time this season against the Big Ten’s top rush defense.
The conference’s dead-last total defense actually played admirably for 3 quarters. But the Hawkeyes did what the Hawkeyes do, wearing Minnesota’s youthful front down with stretch zone plays aplenty. Running back Tyler Goodson averaged over 7 yards per carry on a career night, and the Gophers are now giving up a B1G-worst 238 yards per game on the ground.
Last year, it was a defensive nail-biter that went Iowa’s way. The Hawkeyes won a 48-31 shootout in Minneapolis 2 seasons ago. And in 2017, Fleck’s debut campaign, only a touchdown separated these teams.
Jerry Kill was the coach last time Minnesota beat the team its fans chant they hate during every game, no matter the opponent.
The Gophers still lead the series 62-49-2. But that’s of zero consequence for a team that’s suddenly halfway through an 8-game regular-season slate with nothing but a blowout win over the hapless Illini to show for it.
“It’s a pretty tough start,” cornerback Coney Durr said. “A lot of guys haven’t been in this position before.”
It’s especially painful considering Minnesota’s self-inflicted wounds.
A 17-play, 74-yard drive that could’ve cut Iowa’s 14-0 lead in half but ended with a missed field goal. A blocked field goal. Missed tackling and continual lack of discipline against the run. Eight penalties for 85 yards, including a targeting foul against linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin that saw him booted in the first half.
And 2 costly interceptions from quarterback Tanner Morgan.
The redshirt junior who turned heads all over the country last season has been average at best through 4 games. Morgan is now 61-for-106, or 57.5%. In 2019, he completed a school-record 66% of his throws.
Has he lost his confidence?
“I would not say that whatsoever,” said Fleck, who went on to place blame on receivers for dropping passes and pointed the offense’s overall lack of rhythm as reasons for Morgan’s struggles. “I think you’ve got to give Iowa’s defense a lot of credit. I’ve also thought [Morgan has] played very well at certain points.”
Said Morgan: “We have a lot of weapons, a lot of things that we can do. We just have to execute as players. That starts with me.”
Minnesota was also without starting cornerback Benjamin St-Juste on Friday. When asked for a reason and the defensive back’s status moving forward, Fleck responded, “It’s 2020.”
You can probably guess why St-Juste was out, then.
It all added up to a rivalry contest that was over midway through the 4th quarter — though you wouldn’t know it from the way Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz used all 3 of his timeouts at the end of the game to try and keep the Gophers off the board.
“Figured we’d take Floyd with us and leave the timeouts here,” Ferentz said afterward.
It’s an arrogant but not unexpected move. But the best way to avoid getting shown up by your nemeses is to hit them in the mouth and score more points than them.
Minnesota did neither Friday night.
The Gophers won’t compete in the B1G West without finding a way to top Iowa. But that’s a conversation for another day.
Today, the Gophers are 1-3 for the first time since 2011. There’s an asterisk next to that factoid courtesy of an all-B1G schedule.
But any aspirations of building on last year’s 11-win campaign are out the window. Instead, Minnesota has 4 more tries to garner some momentum ahead of the B1G’s “championship week” and an uncertain offseason.
“We have an identity, and we know who we are, and we win games a certain way,” Fleck said. “It was exactly the opposite tonight.”