IOWA CITY - Well, at least no one can say they hadn't been warned.
During each week of the Gophers' 4-0 start to the season, Jerry Kill had been tempering the fans' urge to view those early victories as any kind of grand statement. "I think we've moved forward for the period of time that we've been here," the coach said Tuesday. "But with that being said, we're nowhere close to where we need to be. Nowhere close."
The Gophers proved that Saturday with a dismal performance at Iowa. All the things that had gone their way in the first four games -- their stout defense, their ability to force turnovers, their much-improved passing game -- disappeared in a 31-13 loss. The reverse happened for the Hawkeyes, who quieted their restless fan base for at least a week by dominating in a rivalry game seven days after an unthinkable home loss to Central Michigan.
For those of little faith, it will be tempting to write off the Gophers as the rodents of old. Perhaps those first four games were a mirage, an illusion destined to disappear once the piñatas on the schedule were replaced with superior competition.
But Kill was right about not reading too much into the Gophers' early success, and the theory is just as valid now that the other cleat has dropped. To know who the Gophers truly are, we need to see how they take a hard punch, one that came with the additional dismay of a pig-napping. Floyd might have been lost after his two-year residency in Minnesota, but the Gophers still have the chance to gain something from their somber Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.
"It hurts," safety Brock Vereen said. "It's supposed to hurt. But we're going to bounce back. We're going to get focused on Northwestern and get this thing going in the right direction.
"We learned a lot of lessons out there today. That will linger with us for a little bit, and eventually it will turn to motivation."
Kill spoke after the game about his team's youth, a theme he returns to frequently. He noted there were only nine seniors in uniform Saturday, and that the Gophers have been compromised by injuries.
It's a safe bet that when he views the game film, he will come down a lot harder on his team's mistakes than he did in his news conference. The Gophers put little pressure on Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg, who had been struggling mightily this season. For much of the game, they failed to contain a Hawkeyes receiving corps that had dropped plenty of balls in the previous four games. Gophers quarterback Max Shortell was distressingly inaccurate, and the offensive line created too little room for Donnell Kirkwood.
Their tackling was particularly atrocious. Iowa running back Mark Weisman -- a walk-on transfer from Air Force -- hit the 100-yard mark on the Hawkeyes' fourth drive of the game, with back-to-back carries for 27 and 44 yards. On each of those runs, the Gophers let him get out of their grasps, something that happened time and again Saturday. For Division I players who have been tackling since Pop Warner days, that's not a function of youth. It stems from a lack of focus, and no one had an explanation for it.
The game might have given a dose of karmic comeuppance to Gophers fans. As much as they enjoyed the early success, many were equally gleeful over Iowa's ineptitude, chortling over the Hawkeyes' last-minute loss to Central Michigan that left them 2-2 entering Saturday.
Some of Iowa's spoiled fans were calling for coach Kirk Ferentz to be fired. That would be an expensive proposition; the Des Moines Register reported that Ferentz, making $4 million a year on a contract that runs through the 2020 season, would be owed $25 million if he were given the boot. His team showed Saturday that things might not be quite as bad as they seemed.
And the Gophers proved just the opposite. They did improve in the second half, holding Iowa to 49 yards. Afterward, they said all the right things, vowing to use the bye week to solve the problems they encountered at Iowa. "They'll find out who's really, really invested and really understands how to fight back," Kill said. "I think we'll bounce back."
It's impossible to predict whether they can. Their woeful history might inspire pessimism. Their steady improvement under Kill gives some reason for optimism. One thing, though, is certain: How the Gophers respond will say much more about them than their 4-0 start.
Rachel Blount • firstname.lastname@example.org