IOWA CITY – The recipe for pulling off an upset on the road in a rivalry game can be simple.
First, play stingy defense. Second, win the battle of field position. And third, cash in when you reach the red zone.
The Gophers checked off the first two categories Saturday night at Kinnick Stadium but came up short in the third. The result was a 17-10 loss to Iowa, meaning the Gophers returned to Minneapolis without the Floyd of Rosedale trophy and without a signature victory yet in coach P.J. Fleck’s first year as Minnesota’s coach.
“We’ve been in every single game all the way down to the end. In some we finished, in some we haven’t,” Fleck said. “In this league, you’ve got to find a way to finish.”
The defense for Minnesota (4-4, 1-4 Big Ten) certainly held up its end of the bargain. In front of a black-clad Hawkeyes crowd of 66,292, the Gophers forced two first-half turnovers and held Iowa (5-3, 2-3) mostly in check after surrendering a touchdown on the Hawkeyes’ opening possession.
And field position went in the Gophers’ favor, as they pinned Iowa inside its 20-yard line four times.
But the Gophers couldn’t cash in a pair of first-quarter trips inside the Iowa 15, with quarterback Demry Croft and tight end Nate Wozniak failing to connect on a fourth-and-1 pass on the first and Croft throwing an interception on a tipped ball on the second. Those lost points haunted Minnesota the rest of the game.
“We just have to execute in the red zone,” said running back Rodney Smith, who led the Gophers with 82 rushing yards on 15 carries. “We got down there close to the goal line twice and didn’t capitalize.”
The Gophers threatened in the second half, getting a touchdown early in the fourth quarter and a field goal with 4:28 left to twice trim Iowa’s lead to seven points. Iowa, however, got a key first down and pinned the Gophers at their 15 with 1:20 left. Croft, who finished 9-for-29 for 139 yards and was a victim of several dropped passes, was sacked on fourth down with 56 seconds left to end any comeback chance.
“What a football game that was,” said Fleck, who’s still seeking his first Big Ten road win. “… I’m disappointed we didn’t get the win, but I’m very proud of our players’ efforts.”
On defense, the Gophers limited Iowa to 125 rushing yards, including only 70 by standout Akrum Wadley. Hawkeyes quarterback Nate Stanley did most of the damage, passing for 190 yards, including gains of 22 and 25 yards on the opening TD drive and a 45-yard TD to tight end Noah Fant for a 14-0 lead early in the third quarter.
“First drive, our effort was there, just execution wasn’t,” said Gophers linebacker Thomas Barber, who finished with 12 tackles.
While the defense executed much better after that, the offense didn’t in those two key situations.
On the first missed chance, the Gophers nearly scored when Croft threw a dart to Tyler Johnson on a slant pattern on second-and-9 from the Iowa 15. But Johnson dropped the ball.
“There’s several plays I’d like to have back,” said Johnson, who led the Gophers with four catches for 92 yards. “I’d say if I get those plays back, the outcome may have been different.”
Facing fourth-and-1, Fleck eschewed a field-goal attempt, going for the first down. But Croft threw high and the backpedaling, 6-10 Wozniak couldn’t catch up to the ball in the end zone.
“Going for it on fourth down, I’d do it all over again,” Fleck said. “Great play call. He’s open. He just turns too early and starts backpedaling.”
The Gophers got the ball right back, with safety Jacob Huff intercepting Stanley and giving Minnesota the ball at the Iowa 48. Instead of cashing in, the Gophers got to the 14 before Croft’s pass on a slant pattern to Johnson was tipped by Iowa’s Josh Jackson and intercepted in the end zone by Jake Gervase.
The Gophers cut the lead to 14-7 on Kobe McCrary’s 1-yard TD lead 23 seconds into the fourth quarter after a 25-yard punt by Iowa. The Hawkeyes extended the lead to 17-7 on Miguel Recinos’ 32-yard field goal. That left the Gophers with only 5:34 with which to work.
Croft quickly found Johnson, who raced for a 63-yard gain to the Iowa 15. But two incomplete passes and a declined holding call forced the Gophers to settle for Emmit Carpenter’s 33-yard field goal that cut the lead to 17-10 with 4:28 left.
“Our youthful football team is learning valuable lessons to create that armor, that leather skin, those scars for the future of our program,” Fleck said.