As Gophers coach P.J. Fleck put it on WCCO radio Sunday morning, the Gophers had a chance to win at Iowa, but they didn’t deserve it.
The Gophers fell behind by two scores early in the game and never recovered, though they did eventual come back within four points with a slim chance to go for the win at the end of regulation. Iowa’s defense stumped the Gophers’ run game, allowing only 63 yards, and sacked quarterback Tanner Morgan six times. He still helped the Gophers with 368 passing yards plus a touchdown, but a tentative start, bad blocking, missed tackles, frustrating drops and critical penalties were too much to surmount.
“We had a lot of mistakes and penalties, stopped drives and miscommunications,” running back Rodney Smith said. “Just a lack of execution.”
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• Morgan’s status: The sophomore quarterback took a big hit from Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa late in the game and didn’t return. Fleck said Morgan was wobbly and woozy after the sack, and he expected the signal caller to be in concussion protocol. Fleck said on the radio he hadn’t seen Morgan yet but thought he would be OK, though it was a little too early to tell. For the final two offensive plays of the game, the Gophers sent in true freshman Cole Kramer, who threw an incompletion and an interception to seal the Gophers’ loss.
• Peculiar penalties: In the Gophers’ three seasons with Fleck, the team has been the least-penalized squad in the country, including only 37 infractions this season for fourth in the nation and first in the Big Ten entering the Iowa game. But against the Hawkeyes, the Gophers racked up five penalties for 52 yards. Fleck said on the radio those also came at crucial times, such as tight end Bryce Witham’s hold on a fourth-and-1 down 20-3 in the second quarter that negated a 6-yard rush from Rodney Smith to Iowa’s 22-yard line.
• Fleck flagged: One more time for those in the back — the referees calling Fleck for an unsportsmanlike conduct late in the third quarter did not cost the Gophers the ball. Fleck ran on the field to check on Tyler Johnson, who endured a late hit after dropping a key pass on fourth-and-4 that could have helped the Gophers tie the score. Fleck said on the radio he received a text from Bill Carollo, the Big Ten’s director of officials, saying the head official at the Iowa game recognized Fleck did nothing wrong in running on the field to check on his player, just that he did so too fast. Fleck argued that he’s always done that and hasn’t incurred a penalty. But in the end, the series of penalties only cost the Gophers about 8 yards, and Fleck said he wouldn’t do anything differently.
Up next: at Northwestern
11 a.m. Saturday, Ryan Field • TV (radio): Ch. 5 (100.3-FM)
The skinny: The No. 11 Gophers need a quick turnaround after dropping their first game of 2019. At 9-1 (6-1 in the conference), they still hold a one-game lead on Wisconsin in the Big Ten West. Winning their final two games would seal the trip to the Big Ten Championship Game. The No. 14 Badgers loom Nov. 30. But before that, the Gophers have to weather lowly Northwestern.
At 2-8 overall and 0-7 in the conference, Northwestern is a shadow of the team that won the division last season. The Wildcats’ offense plods, averaging only 14.5 points and 290.9 yards per game. Their defense isn’t much better, allowing 23.5 points and 344.5 yards per game.
But the Gophers haven’t beaten Northwestern the past two seasons. And in the past two trips to Ryan Field, a notoriously sleepy atmosphere, they’ve endured shutouts of 39-0 in 2017 and 27-0 in 2015. The Gophers could also miss three starters, as right guard Curtis Dunlap Jr., and kicker Michael Lantz did not play at Iowa because of injuries and Morgan left the game late because of a possible concussion. Fleck didn’t have a concrete update on any of those players during his radio interview Sunday.