The first play set the tone for the Gophers football team Saturday. A handoff to Trey Potts lost 5 yards. That was Homecoming 2022 in a snapshot.
The Gophers went backward.
A team that looked so dominant the first month of the season got pushed around physically. A team that had executed with precision against weaker competition made mistake after mistake after mistake when the opposition offered more resistance.
It wasn't just that the Gophers suffered their first loss, 20-10 to Purdue. It was how they lost that caused fans to shuffle somberly toward the exits at Huntington Bank Stadium.
The Gophers self-destructed in the first half while allowing Purdue's defense to dictate terms in the trenches. The culprit wasn't one person, one play or one sequence, but the sum of it.
"We didn't deserve to win," coach P.J. Fleck said.
That is a perfect synopsis in the simplest, most direct terms.
All is not lost because the Big Ten West is the definition of pedestrian, which is putting it kindly. The loss, though, tamps down the giddiness surrounding a 4-0 start and showed that a veteran Gophers team praised for its maturity and moxie is quite capable of producing rain on a sunny day.
"That is not how we played in the last month," Fleck said.
Purdue isn't New Mexico State or Western Illinois, either. The competition jumped several notches, and the Gophers basically gift-wrapped a 13-point swing to the visitors.
First, Fleck overreacted to a slow start by going for it on fourth-and-1 from his own 29 in the first quarter. The Gophers sent in wildcat quarterback Cole Kramer, who got stuffed for no gain. Purdue turned that prime field position into a field goal for a 10-0 lead.
Fleck said he felt his team needed a jolt and that he supported the play call. I have been critical of Fleck's game management as being too cautious in the past, but this gamble felt too risky so early in the game, especially with star running back Mo Ibrahim sidelined by injury.
"It only cost us three points, but it's worth it," Fleck said. "I would do it again. We've got to be able to get fourth-and-1s."
The offense coughed away 10 points in the second quarter. Matthew Trickett hooked a 28-yard field goal attempt. Later, wide receiver Michael Brown-Stephens was open in the end zone but let an on-target pass bounce off his hands and into the arms of a Purdue defender.
Leaving points on the field against quality opponents is a recipe for losing.
"It was like we were uphill all day," Fleck said.
That was especially noticeable with the offensive line. Purdue's defensive front won that matchup decisively, which forced the Gophers to abandon their identity as a ball-control offense. Fleck admitted that Purdue "dominated the line of scrimmage."
"There were too many times that push was going backwards, which we're not used to," he said.
They didn't have the injured Ibrahim available to bail them out by breaking tackles. The result was a non-existent rushing attack (47 yards total). The Gophers won't win many games using that formula.
The pressure and lack of a running game heaped pressure on the passing game. Tanner Morgan never looked comfortable and threw three interceptions — one off a tipped pass at the line, the Brown-Stephens hiccup and a final heave that was poorly thrown.
Everything was a struggle for the offense. The defense kept the Gophers in the game until that unit finally cracked in the closing minutes.
The game was lost much earlier than that. The vibe didn't feel right from the start. The Gophers came out flat, fell behind, made repeated mistakes and they could never generate any rhythm because their offensive line got overpowered.
Fleck reminded his players afterward that their goals are still within grasp, but the path suddenly looks different. The Gophers have back-to-back road games after their bye, starting at Illinois, which demolished Wisconsin in Madison on Saturday. Then comes a trip to Penn State.
The Gophers deserved their first loss by how they played. Their response will tell us more about where this season is headed.