Six minutes, 20 seconds might not sound like a lot of time, but in college football terms, it can swing a season.
Just ask the Gophers, who over the past two weeks tied the score against Maryland with 3:54 to go and led Purdue by a point with 2:26 to go. Minnesota lost both games — 31-24 to the Terrapins on a touchdown with 1:10 to play and 31-17 to the Boilermakers after a go-ahead TD and two-point conversion with 1:17 to go and subsequent pick-six.
That left the Gophers 0-2 in the Big Ten after a promising 3-0 nonconference start. The lack of finishing touch in what many viewed as a soft portion of the conference schedule has coach P.J. Fleck hearing the first bit of grumbling from the fan base.
So, how do the Gophers — who’ve been outscored 32-10 in the fourth quarter in Big Ten play — find a way to finish these close games?
“You just don’t go out there and say, ‘Hey, we got to finish,’ and then you go out there, ‘Wow, that was a great speech, Coach,’ ’’ Fleck said.
No, that’s not the way to do it. But the Gophers’ opponent Saturday night at TCF Bank Stadium, No. 21 Michigan State, might have a blueprint.
During the past two weeks, the Spartans held off Iowa 17-10 in East Lansing and then-No. 7 Michigan 14-10 in Ann Arbor. They limited the Hawkeyes to 19 rushing yards total and a field goal in the second half. The Wolverines committed five turnovers and scored only a TD in the second half.
“Our entire team played with grit,’’ Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said. “We played extremely hard and did not get overwhelmed by the environment.’’
For the Gophers, closing games will require a combination of experience, confidence, talent and depth, and they have those qualities in varying levels.
That showed in last Saturday’s loss at Purdue. Up 14-6 at halftime, the Gophers fell behind 16-14 with 9:58 left in the fourth quarter when a thunderstorm forced a delay of 88 minutes.
When play resumed, the Gophers marched 62 yards in 17 plays, munching 7:32 off the clock before Emmit Carpenter’s 38-yard field goal gave them a 17-16 lead with 2:26 to go. Twice, the Gophers converted fourth-and-1 situations, and they also got a first down on third-and-10.
An impressive drive for Fleck and offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, and one that could have won the game.
“After the rain delay, the determination that we played with, the commitment to each other, how hard we played in that drive — I thought that was important in the development of our unit and our football team,’’ Ciarrocca said. “That’s what it takes.’’
Where the Gophers couldn’t finish on that drive was on third-and-4 from the Purdue 21. Rodney Smith’s 1-yard run left them with fourth-and-3, and Fleck even considered some radical strategy to bleed the clock.
“In my mind I was like, ‘I think we need to go for this,’ ’’ Fleck said.
Understandably, he took the three points for the lead, but Purdue still had 2:26 with which to work.
That was too much time. Purdue, which got a 44-yard kickoff return, needed only four plays to find the end zone for a 24-17 lead against a Minnesota defense that was without both starting safeties and lost a starting cornerback to injury.
“If you want to finish things, it’s all about the culture and doing the little things right throughout the week,’’ defensive coordinator Robb Smith said. “… We’ve got to learn from it, we’ve got to grow from it.”
Added linebacker Jonathan Celestin: “We need to continue to stop the run and create takeaways and eliminate the big plays.’’
The learning experience was similar against Maryland. The Gophers drove 80 yards to tie the score with 3:54 left, only to see the Terps travel 74 yards for the winning TD.
The value of tight-game experience isn’t lost on quarterback Conor Rhoda, who completed all three of his passes for 68 yards on the tying drive against Maryland.
“The big takeaway from the Maryland game was we didn’t like the effort that we played with as a whole team,’’ the fifth-year senior said. “The Purdue game, when you went back and watched the film, you saw guys playing with a lot more effort, playing for each other more. … Obviously, nobody’s happy with the result from Purdue, but there were some good things to see.’’