Despite the recent success of the program, Minnesota football is still searching for its first-ever B1G West title under head coach PJ Fleck. For those wondering why the Gophers have yet to break through, Saturday’s homecoming loss to Purdue was another indication of a program still searching to learn how to play as a favorite in key moments.

For example, Minnesota has gone 27-11 overall since the start of the 2019 season with at least 9 wins in each non-covid year in that time span. So, why are the Gophers still looking for a B1G West title despite the 2nd-most wins by a west program since the beginning of 2019?

In reality, it all boils down to a few select games over the past few seasons where Minnesota had a chance to stake its case as the top dog in the division, only to fall flat. And if the Gophers are ever going to make a legitimate chase for a B1G title under Fleck, they’ll need to figure out to play as the hunted, even when circumstances – and injuries – are unfavorable.

Here’s a look at some of those “what-if” type games for Minnesota over the past few season:

Oct. 1, 2022 – Homecoming loss to Purdue, 20-10

Before anyone brings it up: Yes, not having Mohamed Ibrahim greatly impacts Minnesota’s chances in any game. But you know who doesn’t want to hear about injuries impacting your team? Purdue.

The Boilermakers entered Saturday’s game with a banged-up Aidan O’Connell on a short week of practice. Receiver Broc Thompson and running back Kinge Doerue were out, as was impact defender Jalen Graham.

Even without Ibrahim, everything added up to a must-win game for the Gophers. At least, it was a must-win game for a program hoping to establish itself as the legitimate frontrunner in the division.

Instead, Tanner Morgan threw 3 interceptions, Matthew Trickett missed a field goal, and a combination of Bryce Williams and Trey Potts made up for Ibrahim’s absence by rushing for 48 yards on 20 carries. Even if Minnesota had a faulty deck, those are the kind of games this program has to learn to pull out, particularly in a homecoming environment.

Sept. 25, 2021 – Home loss to Bowling Green, 14-10

Minnesota won 9 games and a bowl in 2021, a strongly successful season for the Gophers. But, such strong results once again produced some head-scratching results for Fleck’s squad (and that’s without getting into another home loss to an upstart Illinois squad in conference play).

To put the 2021 loss to the Falcons in perspective, understand that Bowling Green finished 4-8 overall in 2021. Two of those wins came in the MAC, another came over FCS Murray State… and the fourth came over Minnesota.

There’s really no point in rehashing all the various stats from the loss because there’s not a single statistic that should make any fan go “Well, actually” about a loss to Bowling Green. These are the kind of losses that set programs back, and it was a foreshadowing that the Gophers still cannot be trusted as a front-running program.

Nov. 13, 2019 – Home loss to Wisconsin, 38-17

Yes, it should be noted that PJ Fleck has produced solid results while going 2-3 vs. Wisconsin in the rivalry. And yes, Wisconsin was a top-15 opponent when the Badgers rolled into Minneapolis to finish the 2019 season.

Nevertheless, those numbers do not tell the full story. Remember that Fleck and Minnesota entered that game at No. 9 nationally with the only loss in the season (to that point) coming on the road vs. Iowa in a hostile night game at Kinnick.

Then add in the fact that Minnesota was playing for its first outright West title and trip to Indianapolis. Okay, got the full picture? And remember what happened?

In case you don’t remember, Minnesota was not simply beaten at home in the rivalry game, Wisconsin manhandled the Gophers. The Badgers produced a 35-3 scoring run that spanned from just before halftime until the 8:41 mark of the fourth quarter. Save for a late Minnesota touchdown, Wisconsin would have won the game by 28 points.

A loss in a rivalry series in itself is nothing to hang your head on, particularly to a program like Wisconsin that featured Jonathan Taylor, Zack Baun, Chris Orr, Caesar Williams, Eric Burrell and a host of other top-notch players.

However, it’s a different story for a program playing at home, trying to establish itself as a legitimate contender and getting run out of the stadium before the game is deep into the fourth quarter.

Look, this season is far from over, and Minnesota has as much shot as anyone to win – or lose – a West division that currently features a 6-way tie for first place. But the point remains: PJ Fleck and the Gophers lost a huge opportunity in Week 5 to prove they can play – and win – as the favorites.