IOWA CITY – A.J. Epenesa barreled through the Gophers offensive line and leveled Tanner Morgan, leaving the quarterback curled up and writhing on the Kinnick Stadium field.
While the Iowa defensive end glowered down at Morgan and screamed in triumph, puffing out his chest, the Gophers’ undefeated season was as wobbly as its quarterback. With a little more than a minute left to overcome a four-point deficit, Morgan was woozy and headed for the sideline.
That sixth sack was Morgan’s last play, as the Gophers sank 23-19 at Iowa on Saturday, losing for the first time in 2019. The Gophers fell behind early, already down two possessions in the first quarter. And despite Morgan’s best effort, everything worked against the Gophers — even themselves.
While Gophers coach P.J. Fleck pulled Morgan from the game after that final hit, later saying he expected the quarterback to be in concussion protocol, that didn’t stop Morgan from wanting to finish the game.
“He’s saying, ‘Let’s go back in.’ I’m like, ‘You’re not going back in, man,’ ” Fleck said. “I mean, I looked right at him, and there’s no way I’m going to send that kid back on the field.”
Morgan had to watch while true freshman Cole Kramer threw an incompletion and then an interception to leave the Gophers at 9-1, hanging on to a one-game lead on Wisconsin in the Big Ten West Division.
Morgan has orchestrated success since he became the Gophers’ starter halfway through last season. He has won at Wisconsin, regaining the edge in that rivalry game for the first time in 14 years. He won in the Quick Lane Bowl. He won at Purdue, missing only one of his 22 pass attempts. He won a week ago vs. then-No. 4 Penn State, completing 18 of 20 passes and having thousands of Gophers fans swallow him up in celebration on the TCF Bank Stadium field after the biggest program victory in decades.
On Saturday, he was swarmed by Hawkeyes, engulfed in field-stormers reveling in keeping the Floyd of Rosedale trophy in Iowa for a fifth consecutive year and preventing the border rival from its first victory at Kinnick Stadium since 1999.
Morgan did everything he could, completing 25 of 36 passes for 368 yards and a touchdown. And even though Morgan and the Gophers posted 431 offensive yards to Iowa’s 290, a slow start for the team overall, NFL-caliber receivers making uncharacteristic drops and a missing starter on the offensive line all contributed to the collective downfall. Plus, Iowa had nothing to lose, with three Big Ten losses already, and used its stout defense to maintain its reputation as a ruiner of historically good seasons.
Tyler Johnson made nine catches for 170 yards and a score. But he dropped a pass on the Iowa 6-yard line on fourth-and-4 that could have led to a tie score near the end of the third quarter.
Johnson said he “definitely” should have made that catch.
“That was nobody but me,” Johnson said. “Tanner did a great job. O-line did a great job protecting. I was able to create separation. I’ve just got to finish off right there.”
The senior wasn’t the only player whiffing on plays that could have changed the game. Just as how picking out all the Gophers’ fabulous highlights a week ago against Penn State was impossible, it’s the same for all the moments that went awry against the Gophers against the Hawkeyes. From a dropped interception from Coney Durr, to a missed tackle from Chris Williamson, to a dropped pass from Rashod Bateman, to a missed field-goal attempt and extra-point try from Brock Walker.
“We just weren’t mentally prepared for the game,” linebacker Thomas Barber said. “And it just kind of hit us in the mouth. Usually, we’re the ones hitting [opponents in] the mouth first. And we got hit in the mouth first today.”
The Gophers defense couldn’t wrap up its tackles, allowing Iowa to convert on all three of its red-zone scoring chances. The offense couldn’t score. Iowa couldn’t lose.
Fleck credited Morgan’s toughness and rallying ability for giving the team the belief to try for a last-ditch comeback.
“As bad as we played, we still had an opportunity in the last two minutes to go win that football game against a really good football team,” Fleck said. “But just wasn’t good enough.”
The mood after the game was predictably somber, with players disappointed to see a perfect season dashed and possibly emotionally drained from experiencing an incredible victory and shocking defeat all in eight days.
But this wasn’t the end. All the possibilities for this season — a Big Ten championship berth, a Rose Bowl trip, a potential College Football Playoff selection — are all still in reach.
Only one is lost.
“We know we have a lot more at stake still,” Barber said. “We still control our destiny.”
NO. 20 IOWA 23, NO. 8 GOPHERS 19
Saturday at Northwestern (time, TV TBD)