The Gophers lacked plenty in the 35-7 loss to Iowa on Friday. The offense lacked points. The defense lacked personnel. And special teams lacked consistency.
But of the myriad issues plaguing the Gophers as they fell to 1-3 this season, one was universal: lack of leadership.
From the coaches to the players on each side of the ball, either no one stepped up, or the ones who did fumbled the responsibility.
On an already oft-described young and inexperienced defense, the Gophers started against a fierce border rival without one of their few returning starters from last season’s 11-2 team. Cornerback Benjamin St-Juste was not opposite Coney Durr after testing positive for COVID-19, a source close to the situation said. Per Big Ten policy, St-Juste must sit out 21 days, which means he will miss at least the next two games, against Purdue on Friday and at Wisconsin on Nov. 28.
“It’s not going to stop,” Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said of playing amid a global pandemic with cases on the rise. “Some people have had more challenges with the issues of 2020 than others.”
The Gophers are obviously not immune, but they could count themselves lucky as part of an ever-shrinking group of teams yet to have a game canceled because of a COVID-19 outbreak. But several on the team have tested positive for it throughout the season, including defensive coordinator Joe Rossi.
Fleck said he counted six freshmen on the field at one time for his defense against Iowa, including redshirt freshman James Gordon IV taking his first start in place of true freshman linebacker Cody Lindenberg. Redshirt freshman Donald Willis also helped fill in for linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin after officials ejected him for targeting, and true freshman Michael Dixon even took some snaps at safety for Tyler Nubin.
Offensively, the Gophers boasted experience entering this year with all but two returning starters, and quarterback Tanner Morgan anchors that side on and off the field. But his rough night, going 16-of-33 for 167 yards, one final-breath touchdown and two interceptions that led to Iowa scores, seemed to shake the unit’s confidence.
At the top, the Gophers coaches couldn’t seem to settle the players in the slightest. Fleck incurred a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct call as part of the team’s eight penalties for 85 yards. Rossi couldn’t scheme against Iowa’s rush despite knowing the Hawkeyes’ new quarterback was a vulnerability to exploit. And offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr., was overly dedicated to involving just three players in his game plan: Morgan, running back Mohamed Ibrahim and receiver Rashod Bateman.
Special teams coordinator Rob Wenger had all of his starters in place, a rarity to start this season. But he still had a blocked 39-yard field goal attempt from Brock Walker, and punter Mark Crawford averaged just 36.8 yards per punt with several out of bounds. There were also botched returns, including Cam Wiley falling forward immediately after fielding one punt at the Gophers’ 10-yard line.
“It’s a pretty tough start,” Durr said of the Gophers’ one-win season. “A lot of guys have been in this position before. I mean, we just have got to come in [Saturday] with our heads up, ready to prepare. Because the season’s not over. So we’ve got four more games.”
After the loss, the Gophers commended Iowa for knowing its strategy and controlling the game with it. But they didn’t acknowledge their own failing in that department, instead pushing focus onto being better for the game against Purdue on Friday.
Ibrahim, one of the Gophers’ few bright spots this season, said the only way for his team to bounce back from such a bad loss to such a bitter rival is to take it “one day at a time.”
But with the season already halfway gone, those days are numbered.