WEST LAFAYETTE, IND. – The Gophers remain winless in the Big Ten, and they haven’t even reached the hard part of their schedule yet.
That thought came to mind after watching the Gophers invent a new way to lose Saturday on windy-turned-stormy Saturday at Ross-Ade Stadium.
Their defense forced turnovers on four consecutive possessions, and they still managed to lose to Purdue by double digits, 31-17.
“Everything that happened falls on me,” Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said.
Ultimately, yes, but blame should be shared. The Gophers blew a winnable game for myriad reasons.
Quarterback Conor Rhoda continued to commit turnovers in the red zone, costing his team valuable points. The defense crumbled like soggy tissue paper with the game on the line. And injuries and suspensions have decimated the depth chart, forcing Fleck to rely on players who aren’t ready and/or good enough to compete at the Big Ten level.
The Gophers look like a flawed team even if everything goes perfectly. They’re not good enough to overcome costly mistakes, sloppy play and fourth-stringers being pressed into emergency action.
“I wouldn’t say anybody is discouraged,” defensive end Carter Coughlin said. “I’d say a lot of people are upset that we didn’t take it home.”
They won’t win many games if they don’t get more from their passing game. Rhoda completed only 11 of 25 passes for 101 yards — 32 of those yards coming on a shoestring grab by Rashad Still that looked lucky more than anything.
The Gophers entered the game ranked 100th nationally in passing and undoubtedly will drop even lower after a negligible output.
Trailing by seven points in the final minute, Rhoda didn’t see linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley and tossed him an easy interception that turned into a game-sealing pick-six.
Rhoda also fumbled inside Purdue’s 10-yard line in the first half, giving him three turnovers in the red zone in five games.
“I’ve got to take care of the ball better,” he said.
His critical mistakes are hurting the offense, but Fleck didn’t sound inclined to give Demry Croft another opportunity any time soon.
Croft returned to the team this week after serving a suspension for undisclosed reasons. Fleck said Croft has to earn back trust before he steps on field again.
“I’ve got to be able to trust that you’re going to do all the right things before you lead this football team,” he said. “Just because [Rhoda] has made a few mistakes, he’s really led this football team. The guys rally behind him. If you’re not going to do the right things and then you’re just going to come back and expect to be in there, I’m not one of those guys.”
No one should blame Fleck for holding players accountable at the risk of losing games. Whatever Croft did upset Fleck enough to stand firm, and that’s the right decision.
Fleck also made it clear that he doesn’t blame Rhoda solely for an inept passing game. His receivers had trouble getting separation from Purdue’s defenders.
That put even more pressure on running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks to carry the offense almost exclusively. That approach might work against inferior opponents, but not against Big Ten competition.
“To find the perfect 14 plays every single time going down the field, “ Fleck said, “we’ve got to make more plays.”
Same for the defense. Following a 90-minute weather delay, the offense put together a 17-plays drive for a go-ahead field goal with 2 minutes, 26 seconds left.
One defensive stop and the game is over.
Purdue needed only four plays and 69 seconds to go 56 yards for a touchdowns. The Boilermakers couldn’t have made it look any easier.
“Unacceptable,” Fleck said.
But not surprising. The Gophers secondary is a mess right now. The combination of injuries, suspensions and expulsions stemming from the sex scandal last season has left the secondary in shambles.
Fleck reiterated that he might need to move a wide receiver to cornerback in a pinch.
“Everybody on this team will play this year,” he said.
That’s not a good thing. Things look bleak, and they’re only five games in.