IOWA CITY – The entire performance just felt off. Sloppiness interspersed with brilliance. One step forward, two steps back is how P.J. Fleck accurately described it.
One week after walking on clouds, the Gophers made killer mistakes — some uncharacteristically — that sabotaged their bid to remain undefeated. Dropped passes, missed tackles, missed kicks, soft pass coverage, and a handful of game-management decisions by Fleck that were open to debate.
Maybe it was an inevitable emotional letdown after the Penn State euphoria, but self-inflicted mistakes doomed the Gophers, No. 8 in the College Football Playoff rankings, in a 23-19 loss to No. 20 Iowa at Kinnick Stadium.
The Gophers haven’t won here since 1999, and this one is particularly frustrating because of an opportunity lost.
“It just wasn’t us, it wasn’t our night,” Fleck said. “We just didn’t play our style of football.”
The loss stings, but the sky isn’t falling. Now 9-1, the Gophers still control their fate with a one-game lead in the Big Ten West with two games remaining. But they can’t afford a repeat of this performance.
The defense gave up touchdowns on the first three series against a previously plodding offense. Defensive coordinator Joe Rossi brought more pressure in the second half, which contributed to Iowa managing only three points and 69 yards after halftime. The defensive intensity and coaching adjustments came too late.
The offense never got its running game on track and star receivers Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman dropped passes in critical moments.
After Rodney Smith’s 1-yard touchdown cut the lead to 23-19 with 3½ minutes left, Brock Walker missed the extra point. And then Fleck called an unnecessary onside kick.
It was failure at the worst possible moments.
The game pivoted on a weird sequence at the end of the third quarter. Trailing 20-13, the Gophers faced fourth-and-4 from the Iowa 14. Fleck went for it. Tanner Morgan’s slant pass to Johnson was perfect and would have been a first down but Johnson dropped it at the 6-yard line.
Iowa’s Dane Belton hit Johnson after the play, a dead-ball foul drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Fleck charged onto the field to check on Johnson and likewise drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
The penalties occurred after the play, meaning Iowa gained possession based on the result of the play, an incompletion. Fleck’s penalty cost his team 15 yards in field position. Rather than start at their own 7, the Hawkeyes took over at the 22.
“I was told I ran onto the field too fast,” Fleck said. “I didn’t know there was a red light and green light to tell us when we can go on the field. The whistle blew, the play is over. My player is lying motionless on the ground.”
Fleck shouldn’t apologize for showing concern for a player. Again, a change of possession was the outcome either way. A few other decisions by Fleck had more impact.
On his team’s opening possession, the Gophers had fourth-and-13 from the Iowa 32. Fleck had Walker, a freshman with little experience, attempt a 50-yard field goal, which was short and wide.
“I believe in my players,” Fleck said, noting Walker was at the edge of his range with the wind at his back.
Showing trust in players is admirable, but that situation screamed for a punt to pin Iowa deep. The miss gave Iowa the ball at the 32. The Hawkeyes scored a touchdown that drive.
Another bang-bang moment came on the final play before halftime. The Gophers had the ball at the 2-yard line with four seconds left. Fleck had Walker kick a 20-yard field goal rather than run a play. Smart move there.
Despite a poor first half, the field goal made it a two-score game, 20-6. The Gophers were getting the ball to start the second half. Take the points rather than risk going to halftime empty-handed.
Ultimately, the Gophers never could sustain anything positive. Sacks, drops, shanked kicks kept interrupting momentum.
Their last gasp ended chaotically. Back-to-back sacks on Morgan left him dazed and unable to finish. Freshman backup Cole Kramer fired two desperation passes, the second resulting in an interception.
“I take the majority, if not all the blame, because I did not have our players playing their best,” Fleck said.