Minnesota football: Gophers have started something -- but they can't finish
You can get lost in the minutiae.
You can wonder how a team that hangs with playoff contender Ohio State in a season opener loses to Bowling Green a few weeks later. You can ask what it means when a coach gets a 7-year contract extension shortly before his team can’t do anything against Illinois.
But you can also see that P.J. Fleck is 54-32 at Minnesota, a place where it traditionally isn’t easy to win. There are good things happening, from Big Ten West title conversations on a semi-regular basis to a well-defined identity to year-over-year defensive improvements that are borderline remarkable.
You could see it Saturday in Iowa City.
The Golden Gophers had 23 more 1st downs than No. 19 Iowa. They outrushed the Hawkeyes 189 yards to 71. They outgained them 409-277. True to form, they held the ball for 40:02 to Iowa’s 19:40.
And yet for the 5th time in as many tries, Fleck’s team couldn’t reclaim the Floyd of Rosedale trophy.
“Unfortunately, we have not been able to beat Iowa,” said Fleck, who was proud of his team for playing its rival closer than it has the past few seasons. “That’s a credit to them.
“You’ve got to get closer before you can get over.”
It’s true. The Gophers have started something, going back to 2019, when they were within a win of the B1G title game.
But they need to learn how to finish.
That was the case in Saturday’s 27-22 loss, which delivered a huge blow to Minnesota’s division title chances. In a tight B1G clash, the Gophers twice settled for field goals in the red zone. With a chance to tie following Tanner Morgan’s 68-yard touchdown pass to Chris Autman-Bell, they failed to convert on the ensuing 2-point conversion.
Winning is a habit. It takes clutch plays in big moments.
Minnesota couldn’t make enough of them Saturday.
The Gophers failed to take advantage of an opponent whose quarterback was making his first career start. The defense played well overall against Alex Padilla and Co., but inexcusable missed tackles allowed Keagan Johnson to sneak away for a 27-yard screen-pass touchdown early in the 4th quarter that proved to be the difference.
The freshman running back combo of Ky Thomas and Mar’Keise Irving continues to be potent, with the pair tallying 126 yards and 80 yards, respectively.
But Morgan continues to struggle with accuracy. He was 14-of-30 for 183 yards Saturday. The protection in front of him continues to be spotty, too.
Never was that more costly than when Minnesota took over deep in its own territory with about 3 minutes to go. The Gophers went backward, including a sack.
That helped make it 6 straight losses for Minnesota in this series. Minnesota hasn’t won in Iowa City since 1999.
The Gophers hadn’t even led against the Hawkeyes in more than 5 years. That changed on Matthew Trickett’s field goal to end the 1st half.
But it wouldn’t last.
“There’s no the moral victories, right, who cares,” Fleck said. “But I care, I care for my football team, how hard they played, how hard they coached.
“Both teams made incredible plays, and it came down to the wire, and anybody could have won that football game.”
So far, that’s the case when Minnesota finds some magic. The Gophers’ 41-14 drubbing of Northwestern on Oct. 30 seems like a long time ago.
Now, the Gophers need wins in their final 2 games against Indiana and Wisconsin and consecutive losses by Iowa to Illinois and Nebraska just for Minnesota to have a chance in the West.
The Gophers have come a long way as a program. But Saturday served as a reminder there’s still a long way to go.