The Gophers woke to this college football utopia on Sept. 25: They had just throttled Michigan State 34-7 in their Big Ten opener, improving to 4-0 after outscoring opponents 183-24. By that Sunday afternoon, they'd enter the AP Top 25 at No. 21.
It wasn't just that they were dominant, it was how the Gophers were winning. Sure, their three nonconference opponents — New Mexico State, Western Illinois and Colorado — were overmatched, but the Gophers toyed with the Spartans, a preseason top 15 team.
And quarterback Tanner Morgan, reunited and feeling so good with offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, awoke the echoes of his magical 2019 by torching Michigan State on 23-for-26 passing for 268 yards and three touchdowns. With star wideout Chris Autman-Bell sidelined for the season a week earlier, Morgan made up for the absence by completing passes to 10 different pass-catchers.
Two months later, that win in East Lansing is a distant memory and the hope for a Big Ten West Division title is gone. The Gophers head to the regular-season finale at Wisconsin on Saturday aiming to secure one last trophy and avoid the indignity of possibly spending bowl season in Detroit after their fanbase dreamed of Pasadena.
What the heck happened?
A combination of factors turned what was looking to be a great season into "meh'' — aside from the brilliant season of running back Mohamed Ibrahim. The 4-0 start was fool's gold, especially with Michigan State, now 5-6, proving more fraudulent than formidable. The Gophers offense became one-dimensional, as Autman-Bell's absence became a bigger factor than it initially appeared. Minnesota's defense, mostly stout, faltered at key times. The kicking game had a couple of bad moments. And some important coaching decisions backfired.
It's added up to a 7-4 overall record and 4-4 Big Ten mark entering Saturday's game at Camp Randall Stadium, where Minnesota will try to retain Paul Bunyan's Axe against Wisconsin (6-5, 4-4).
"There are some things that when we look back, and you're always gonna circle one or two plays,'' Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said, dissecting last week's 13-10 loss to Iowa. "But none of us wanted it to happen the way it happened.''
Things started to go south for the Gophers in the third quarter at Michigan State when Ibrahim suffered an ankle injury, spent time in the medical tent and returned to finish with 103 yards on 22 carries. It didn't seem like a big deal at the time, but the injury kept Ibrahim from playing the next week against Purdue.
Blunders vs. the Boilermakers
The 20-10 homecoming loss to Purdue on Oct. 1 encapsulated what went wrong in 2022 for the Gophers.
- The defense allowed Purdue to score first, and in Big Ten play when the opponent scores first, Minnesota is 1-3.
- Normally reliable kicker Matthew Trickett missed a 28-yard field-goal attempt.
- Minus Ibrahim, the Gophers rushed for only 47 yards on 26 carries.
Two plays stood out.
- With the Gophers facing fourth-and-1 from their 29-yard line, Fleck went for it, but Cole Kramer was stuffed for no gain. Purdue cashed that in for a field goal and 10-0 lead.
If a fourth-and-1 attempt from the Gophers 29 sounds familiar, it should. Fleck went for it from that spot in last year's opener against Ohio State and got a 56-yard run by Ibrahim. He tried again from the 29 against Bowling Green in the fourth game in 2021, but Trey Potts was thrown for a 5-yard loss, leading to a touchdown in the Falcons' 14-10 upset.
- The other key play vs. Purdue came late in the second quarter with the Gophers down 10-3. Morgan found a wide-open Mike Brown-Stephens in the end zone. Instead of a touchdown to tie the score, Brown-Stephens had the ball slip between his hands, bounce off his chest and carom into a Boilermakers defender's arms for an interception.
The defense falters
After the bye week, the Gophers traveled to Illinois, looking to avenge a 2021 upset loss. Instead, the Fighting Illini punched hard early, scoring a TD on their first drive, adding a field goal on their second and rolling to a 26-14 victory in which they outgained Minnesota 472-180 and went 4-for-4 on fourth-down conversions.
"All four of those drives, points were scored,'' Gophers defensive coordinator Joe Rossi said. "If you stopped two of them, it's a different game.''
Morgan suffered through a dreadful outing, going 4-for-12 for 21 yards with an interception before being knocked out of the game in the fourth quarter because of a concussion.
A week later, the Gophers lost 45-17 at Penn State, with Nittany Lions tight ends burning Minnesota's defense for two momentum-shifting touchdowns.
Run game takes precedence
In the seven games since the win at Michigan State, the Gophers have one touchdown pass. Fleck and Ciarrocca have put the burden on Ibrahim's broad shoulders, and the sixth-year senior has rushed for 1,524 yards and a nation's-best 19 touchdowns in 10 games.
"The greatest running back arguably in Minnesota history is in the backfield. Why wouldn't you give it to him 39 times?'' Fleck asked after Ibrahim had 39 carries for 263 yards against Iowa.
Ibrahim carried 14 times in a 16-play, fourth-quarter march against Iowa that was shaping up to be a drive for the ages. Instead, linebacker Jack Campbell forced a fumble that the Hawkeyes recovered at their 9-yard line. And on the next possession when the Gophers tried to pass to convert a third-and-7 situation from the Iowa 33, safety Riley Moss broke up Athan Kaliakmanis' pass and Campbell intercepted it, setting up the winning field goal in the final minute.
"We've just got to keep getting better,'' Ciarrocca said. "There's nothing scientific [about it].''
Those turnovers, plus Trickett's missed 34-yard field-goal attempt and a defense that gave up big plays early and late to Iowa tight ends, combined to doom the Gophers.
"There's a fine line between winning and losing,'' Rossi said. "We were on the wrong side of it.''