– Moral victories are the sports equivalent of roundabouts. You can talk yourself in circles explaining them.

They’re not wins, but they’re not embarrassments when that was the expectation, which leaves you conflicted in trying to frame it.

There is no such thing as a good loss. But encouraging signs can be found in a disappointing outcome, knowing a grand opportunity at something special went unfulfilled.

That tug-of-war of thought occurred while watching the Gophers push the No. 3-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes into the ropes before falling 30-14 at Ohio Stadium.

The Gophers played tough and inspired and unafraid of the big stage as 29 ½-point underdogs against one of the best teams in college football on its home turf in front of 100,000 fans.

But that surprise also brought an unexpected case of what-if? Costly mistakes in a winnable game doomed the chances of a program-defining upset.

The Gophers lost not because they were overwhelmed physically but because they committed a handful of miscues.

“Everyone was frustrated because there was a moment in that game where we thought we really could have pulled this upset off,” linebacker Blake Cashman said.

Their tone afterward felt appropriate. A mix of disappointment and frustration. That was a positive sign. They weren’t wrong either.

Three turnovers compared to none by Ohio State. Two missed field goals by usually reliable Emmit Carpenter. And a botched call by the officials that gift-wrapped Ohio State’s first touchdown. Declining to review the spot on a fourth-down run in the first quarter was poor officiating.

The Gophers were good enough to give themselves a chance but not good enough to overcome those mistakes.

“No moral victories whatsoever,” P.J. Fleck said. “Ever in this program as long as I’m the head football coach. That’s why the result is on me.”

Nobody should celebrate close losses because the result is still the same. Optics matter, though. And that should be the takeaway here, the good and the bad. The Gophers found positives to build upon and things they need to clean up.

Given the choice, I would much rather be frustrated than demoralized after a loss.

“We left a lot of opportunities on the table and made mistakes that shot ourselves in the foot,” Cashman said. “Ohio State didn’t make mistakes. They didn’t give us a win. … [But] we saw a lot of good things out there.”

Nobody embodied that good news/bad news more than receiver Tyler Johnson. He repeatedly beat the Buckeyes defense to catch eight passes for 119 yards. But his fumble at Ohio State’s 32-yard line in the second quarter with the Gophers leading 14-10 was a killer.

A touchdown — or even a field goal — in that situation would have made fans restless. Maybe the Buckeyes would have started to feel some pressure. Instead, they converted that turnover into a touchdown on the ensuing possession and never trailed after that.

The competitive nature of the game probably stunned even the most optimistic souls. The Gophers’ youth has become a broken record, but it’s worth acknowledging in the context of what transpired. And it bodes well for their future if they take some confidence from putting up a fight against a playoff-caliber opponent on the road.

The oft-criticized offensive line had its strongest performance of the season. Tailback Mohamed Ibrahim ran determined in gaining 157 yards. The defense gave up big plays and 412 yards passing but made clutch stops in the red zone to force field goals, which kept the deficit at six points entering the fourth quarter.

There were a lot of positives in the Gophers’ performance, mostly the way they competed. Players should feel some disappointment because they played well enough to regret their mistakes.

“I love coaching that team,” Fleck said. “We might not be this, we might not be that. That doesn’t matter. I love what we have. I’m so proud of how hard they play. I’m not proud of the result. But the result is on me.”

Chip Scoggins chip.scoggins@startribune.com