Missed kick will haunt Gophers, but that's far from the spookiest part of their 0-2 start
Good luck finding someone in Minnesota who woke up Saturday feeling rougher than Brock Walker — assuming he slept at all.
They won’t soon forget this image in the Twin Cities; the Golden Gophers’ No. 2 kicker, still recovering from sports hernia surgery, staring into the cardboard eyes of 15 rows of cutout fans and pushing wide right an extra point that would’ve sent Friday’s topsy-turvy Big Ten crossover contest against Maryland into a second overtime.
But it never should’ve come to that.
Not with the way Minnesota overcame a slow start to completely dominate the middle portion of an eventual 45-44 loss. Not after the defense turned up several big plays that should’ve turned the tide for good. Not with running back Mohamed Ibrahim putting a team missing two starting offensive linemen on his back. Not against a Maryland team that got trounced by Northwestern in Week 1 and is expected to finish at or near the bottom of its division.
“I told Brock I love him,” coach P.J. Fleck said. “He’s done a great job filling in. I told him that’s not the reason why we lost this football game. There’s plenty of blame to go around.”
Last year, the Gophers rode a series of close calls in nonconference play to a 9-0 start and the program’s first 11-win season since 1904. Just 2 weeks ago, 2020 oozed with potential.
Beat or hang with Michigan, then you’ve got a handful of winnable games to make a serious run through the B1G West.
Now a group replacing 7 defensive starters is flying back from the Washington, D.C., area with a much different taste in its mouth.
“We’ve been in close games before, especially for the older guys in the room, and this is what the other side of the locker room feels like,” Fleck said.
Spinning the growing pains into a learning experience is great. But the question now is where does Minnesota go from here?
After a blowout loss to Michigan and Friday night’s Halloween-weekend heartbreaker, the Gophers are 0-2 with 7 remaining B1G games. They’ve got a defense that hasn’t exhibited mastery of the basics, from tackling in space to run fits when a quarterback takes off to run to defensive backs turning their heads when the ball is in the air. Their kicking game has been impacted by COVID-19 but was far from a sure strength heading into the year.
Fleck wants to build a perennial contender in the West. Until Minnesota is able to recruit at a consistently higher level, it’s going to be prone to ebbs and flows from season to season.
Personnel turnover is part of life in college football, especially right now — as Wisconsin, the Gophers’ next opponent Illinois and Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence have learned, among many others.
“We didn’t deserve to win the football game tonight,” Fleck said. “But this is college football in 2020. We’ve got a lot of inexperience on defense. Not an excuse, but we’ve got a lot of things we need to get better on.”
This week, defensive coordinator Joe Rossi outlined four main areas his unit needs to improve in: effort, communication, setting the edge and being in the right positions.
All four eluded Minnesota at times Friday night. Maryland scored on its first 3 drives and finished with 675 yards of offense — 453 of them to quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa in his second career start.
Yes, the Gophers lost 4 players to the NFL after a 2019 campaign in which they finished 4th in the B1G in total defense.
But as Fleck said, attrition can’t become a crutch.
“It’s a different team than last year,” said defensive end Boye Mafe. “That was 2019. This is 2020. It’s honestly a completely different team and we need to approach it a different way.”
As bad as it’s been, Minnesota may have found something of a formula out east. Had it been able to continue controlling the clock and pounding the ball with Ibrahim, a couple of opportunistic plays by Mafe and his mates would’ve been viewed as part of the winning difference.
Mafe’s 4th-quarter sack forced Maryland to kick a field goal and cut the Gophers’ lead to 7 rather than 3. He also tipped a pass that was intercepted by big defensive lineman DeAngelo Carter.
That’s how you bring a green defense along — make up for gaffes with big plays and rely on your offense.
Ibrahim certainly seems capable of making the latter happen after rushing for 207 yards and four scores Friday. He had 140 last week against Michigan’s stout defensive front.
“You can’t really separate [individual and team success],” though, Ibrahim said. “My success and the team’s success — we’re all one. We’re doing whatever we can to bring it all together.”
Gophers fans will likely spend Saturday raking leaves, getting ready for slimmed-down Halloween festivities as COVID-19 cases continue to spike, and dissecting Fleck’s decision to kick with his backup rather than go for two after Wildcat quarterback Seth Green scored in overtime.
But bringing it all together, as Ibrahim alluded to, goes well beyond that minutiae.
In a B1G season that’s already been rescheduled multiple times and has seen several teams — including next weekend’s opponent, Illinois — impacted by COVID-19, it can be hard to draw any big-picture conclusions about a fledgling operation like Fleck’s.
But one thing’s for sure: After they blew a 17-point lead in the 4th quarter Friday, we’re about to learn how bad the Gophers want it in 2020.
“We just have to be resilient,” quarterback Tanner Morgan said. “I can guarantee you we will respond from today.”