Another tight loss.
Another close game that was one possession out of reach.
Another offensive blunder to keep the team from a comeback.
The Minnesota Golden Gophers suffered their fourth Big Ten loss in five weeks, this one to the Iowa Hawkeyes, 17-10.
It was a classic Big Ten rivalry game, with all the key components present. Both defenses came out swinging, dominating the game from the start in a physical way. Smash-mouth football to the finest, as both doth teams were held to under 200 yards passing and rushing.
Early on, the tone was set by the Iowa linebacking corps that finished with 22 of the team’s 69 tackles and held the Gophers running game in check. On the other side, it was the Gophers safety duo of Duke McGhee and Jacob Huff that added an edge to the defense with ground-shaking hits, finishing with eight tackles. McGhee came down the pipe time and again to light up opposing running backs and play the role of enforcer through the middle. Huff added a circus interception as he saved the ball from the turf to give the Gophers an added possession in the first quarter.
“I’m very, very proud of our defense and what we did,” said head coach P.J. Fleck. “Offensively, I thought we ran the ball well, though we needed to get into the passing game.”
The front seven of the Gophers came after Iowa quarterback Nathan Stanley, forcing him out of the pocket and holding him to 190 passing yards. Gophers linebacker Thomas Barber had another double-digit game in tackles with 12, while Jonathan Celestin finished with eight.
But it all was not enough. Forcing a pair of turnovers with a Huff interception and a Ken Handy-Holly fumble recovery was negated by the offense failing to take advantage of the extra opportunities. Holding the Hawkeyes to 17 points was not enough for the Gophers offense, one that looked anemic for most of the night.
The Gophers had a chance early in the game to tie, but were forced off the field on downs, then threw an interception to follow the interception from Huff.
This is, as Fleck says, “year zero,” but how much leash are we willing to give the offensive shortcomings?
The defense has given this Gophers offense numerous bailouts and opportunities throughout the season, staying stout through injuries and turnovers. Meanwhile, the offense has struggled with injury and finding a lead signal-caller and has squandered a top-25 defense.
Quarterback Conor Rhoda dazzled with deep passes to wide receiver Tyler Johnson through two weeks, while Demry Croft impressed with a 21-point fourth quarter against Michigan State. But they both have proven repeatedly that they cannot be trusted and all the signs were there against Iowa.
While the receivers dropped some passes and the running backs had dry spells, the blame falls heavily on Croft and Fleck. The first problem is miscues.
“It came down to execution and most of the plays were there to be made we just didn’t make them,” said Fleck. “We didn’t finish and it’s unfortunate. We’ve been in every single football game down to the end and some we’ve finished, some we haven’t.”
Croft missed receivers, mistimed throws and threw a bad pick in what is becoming an unfortunate staple of this team’s offensive game. On fourth down, Croft overthrew his tight end Nate Wozniak — who is 6-foot-9 by the way — on what could have been a touchdown, instead turning the ball over. He then was gifted another red-zone chance after the Huff interception, only to throw a pass he had no business throwing, which was picked off by Iowa’s Jake Gervase.
Croft continued to overthrow receivers and struggle en route to a 9-for-29 passing performance. He finished with 139 yards and an interception, not showing much after a down game to Illinois. Croft showed he still had the spark he has showing over the season with a 63-yard pass to Johnson — who finished with 92 yards — only to settle for a field goal late in the fourth quarter. The offense capped the day with a sack on fourth down to end their final possession, failing to go anywhere with the ball in the last 1:21 of a one-score game.
“We hit Ty down the sideline, hit a three or four others, maybe it’s a different story,” said Fleck of the offensive misplays. “We are not at that point in our culture, to not play close to perfect and win.”
As a result, the running back trio of Kobe McCrary, Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks were held to 144 yards. The Iowa defense continued to load the box, daring Minnesota to beat the man to man coverage in the passing game, a bet that proved safe down the stretch.
The second problem is predictability, as Fleck also receives a share of the blame for the offensive play calling. From Croft going jet sweep nearly every time he is under center to the same types of route combinations time and again in the red zone, the defense knows what to look for in situational football. While simplicity can be helpful and the Gophers are a young football team, they have now crossed from simple to predictable. The offensive growth has been stunted, making the job of opposing defenses far easier.
The offense has struggled mightily and held the rest of the team back, giving away the football and playing inefficiently in the red zone. While the roster is young and still has a learning curve, it is becoming apparent that the problem is the pieces are not on the roster yet.
The mental mistakes and miscues that keep accruing and the simplicity of the playbook are problems that will ride out the year until Fleck can bring in a new class, with the players they need looking to not be on the roster yet. The offense they have may just be as good as it gets for the Gophers, which is not good enough to win.