Upon Further Review: Early stumbles doom Gophers vs. Iowa

Head coach P.J. Fleck and the Gophers were determined to avoid a letdown following a thrilling win over Penn State that vaulted unbeaten Minnesota into the College Football Playoff conversation.

“Trust me when I tell you, we are going to practice this week harder than we’ve ever practiced,” senior Carter Coughlin told reporters in the lead-up to Saturday’s game in Iowa City.

The letdown arrived almost immediately.

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The Gophers fell behind 13-0 in the first quarter and entered the third down 20-6 after converting on a pair of field-goal tries, Minnesota’s first halftime deficit of the season. They were never able to recover, falling 23-19.

Meanwhile, the Hawkeyes found the end zone on each of their first three possessions.

The offense finally came alive in the third quarter thanks to sophomore quarterback Tanner Morgan and senior receiver Tyler Johnson — as you’d expect — before a disaster in the red zone killed Minnesota’s momentum.

A breathtaking drop by Johnson on fourth down with the Gophers knocking on the door, an egregious late hit and Fleck himself running onto the field; It appeared, for a moment, as though Johnson and his head coach had cost Minnesota a chance to tie.

Optics aside, Fleck’s actions weren’t the problem, at least, not on that play.

The Big Ten quickly clarified: The play was over before the offsetting unsportsmanlike conduct penalties were assessed. Iowa would have taken possession regardless.

The Gophers’ losing streak at Kinnick Stadium continues. Minnesota hasn’t won in Iowa City since 1999. Meanwhile, the Gophers are now 0-13 under Fleck when trailing at the half.

 

PLAYER OF THE GAME

The drop was a game-changer. Morgan hit Johnson as accurately as he could. One of the best receivers in program history dropped it. However, Johnson’s body of work Saturday outweighs one deeply unfortunate drop. The senior went over 100 receiving yards for the fourth time in his last five games, scoring in the third quarter and setting up Rodney Smith’s touchdown run with a 14-yard catch late in the fourth to make it 23-19. Johnson finished with nine catches on 12 targets for 170 yards and a score, his biggest game since gashing Georgia Southern for 140 yards and three touchdowns back in September.

 

DON’T FORGET ABOUT ME

Morgan finished the afternoon 25-for-36 for 368 yards and a touchdown for a completion percentage of 69.4%. It’s a step back after his 18-for-20 performance vs. Penn State, but Minnesota’s offensive line struggled throughout, allowing a season-high six sacks. Minnesota had allowed just one sack in four games heading into Saturday’s contest, while the Hawkeyes had just 18 in their first nine games. Morgan was forced out with 1:07 to go with an apparent injury following back-to-back Iowa sacks, ceding the offense to freshman Cole Kramer for Minnesota’s final two plays of the game. His interception on a seemingly impossible fourth-and-21 ended it. Morgan wasn’t the only one who couldn’t overcome the offensive line’s struggles. Smith and Minnesota’s running backs struggled to find any room to work. The Gophers gained just 63 yards on the ground, averaging 2.1 yards per carry.

 

THAT MOMENT

Perhaps no sequence epitomized the Gophers offense’s struggles in the first half quite like this series of setbacks in the second quarter. Junior Seth Green rushed for no gain on third down with four minutes to go in the half and the Gophers on the Iowa 28. Minnesota used a timeout and went for it on fourth down and appeared to convert, but was hit with a holding penalty. Morgan picked up the first down with a seven-yard run of his own on the ensuing play, but was immediately dropped for a loss of eight on first down. Sophomore Rashod Bateman dropped a catchable ball on second-and-18, before Morgan heaved one to heavily covered sophomore Chris Autman-Bell in the end zone. All that, and Minnesota was eventually forced to punt. The game in miniature: One step forward, two steps back and nothing to show for it.

 

THIS NUMBER

On paper, at least, the numbers favor Minnesota. The Gophers outgained the Hawkeyes 431-290 in total yards and 368-173 through the air. Special teams, however, would have made up the difference on the scoreboard. Freshman Brock Walker missed one of his three field-goal tries — a 50-yarder — and an extra-point attempt following Smith’s touchdown run.

 

THEY SAID IT

“This is one game. Everything else is sitting right in front of us. If we can play a game that poorly, we can come back from it.’ — Head coach P.J. Fleck.

“Defensively, we started too slow. You can’t do that in a Big Ten game.” –Linebacker Thomas Barber said


WHAT’S NEXT

The Gophers’ CFP hopes take a hit, but the Big Ten championship, the Rose Bowl and even that playoff spot are all still in play. Next up: A trip to Evanston to take on 2-8 Northwestern, followed by a home showdown with 8-2 Wisconsin. Running back Jonathan Taylor and the Badgers remain an intimidating matchup, but the Wildcats rattled off seven straight losses before beating UMass 45-6 on Saturday. With a one-game lead over Wisconsin, the Big Ten West remains Minnesota’s to lose.