COLUMBUS, OHIO – First came the fourth-quarter collapse against Illinois, when a backup quarterback needed only three plays to drive his team 85 yards for the winning touchdown with 50 seconds left.
Next was the defensive meltdown at Purdue, where the Gophers gave up 604 yards and 49 points.
And then came the anticipated result at second-ranked Ohio State, which put on a dominant second-half display in a 37-3 romp over the Gophers.
Three consecutive losses in a November to forget have dropped Minnesota from the driver's seat in the Big Ten West Division race to a sub-.500 also-ran just trying to scrape together one more victory to secure bowl eligibility.
It's not where coach P.J. Fleck wanted to be entering the regular-season finale against Wisconsin, with his Gophers needing to beat the Badgers to avoid finishing with a losing record in a full season for the first time since his 5-7 Minnesota debut in 2017.
"We were outmatched and outcoached, and you can go on and on,'' Fleck said Saturday night in Ohio Stadium's visiting media room. "So again, I'm gonna keep saying it as long as I'm the head football coach here. It all starts with me and ends with me. We've got to be way better."
Immediate help is not on the way for the Gophers, whose lack of depth at key positions such as linebacker and running back has been exposed in the second half of the season. With standout linebacker Cody Lindenberg missing his ninth game this season and his backup, Maverick Baranowski, out, too, the Gophers turned to redshirt freshman Tyler Stolsky to fill the key role. In the backfield, converted safety Jordan Nubin carried most of the load after redshirt freshman Zach Evans left the game injured on Minnesota's second offensive series and did not return.
The Buckeyes took advantage of matchups where the Gophers' depth was thin by rushing for 215 yards and limiting Minnesota to 70 yards on the ground.
"You're not going to beat the No. 2 team in the country with freshmen running all over the field, but again, it's investment towards the future," Fleck said.
You're also not going to beat the No. 2 team in the country by being risk-averse, and Fleck passed on a couple of chances to be bold. In the first half, the Gophers faced fourth-and-5 at the Ohio State 40- and 42-yard lines but opted to punt, putting the Buckeyes at their 13 and 11. The safe calls avoided any catastrophic outcomes such as a midfield turnover, but they didn't result in any points for the Gophers, either. Minnesota ventured inside Ohio State's 40 only once and never got inside the Buckeyes 30.
Fleck has lamented his team's inconsistent play throughout the season. Be it a passing game that ranks 126th among the 133 FBS teams or a defense that's been prone to giving up explosive plays, the Gophers don't have the identity of being particularly strong in any facet. Over the past two seasons, they were known for an outstanding running game behind Mohamed Ibrahim and a stout offensive line, plus a Joe Rossi-coordinated defense that got off the field on third down. Last year, the Gophers were sixth-best nationally in preventing opponents from converting third downs (27.8%). This year, they rank 124th (46.9%).
Regaining that consistency won't happen overnight, and Fleck knows that bolstering his roster is a priority, especially with name, image and likeness opportunities and an active transfer portal.
"There's a new era of college football, and we've got to continue to find creative ways to gain depth, keep depth, maintain depth, retain depth," he said, "and then bring depth in from the portal side and the recruiting side."