WEST LAFAYETTE, IND. – Two weeks. Two down-to-the-wire games. Two defeats.
And two big opportunities lost.
That’s reality for the Gophers football team two games into the Big Ten season, following Minnesota’s 31-17 loss to Purdue on a windy and stormy Saturday.
Displaying a mixture of moxie and mistakes, the Gophers did just enough to tease — taking a 17-16 lead with 2 minutes, 26 seconds left — but not enough to stop the Boilermakers from winning on a touchdown with 1:17 to go. The result played out similarly to the 31-24 loss to Maryland in the Big Ten opener, when the Gophers tied the score with 3:54 to go but watched the Terrapins march down the field for the winning TD.
“One hundred percent on me,’’ coach P.J. Fleck repeatedly said after his team fell to 3-2 overall and saw its margin for error in making a bowl game decrease considerably. “… They fought as hard as they possibly could; I’m proud of them for that. But there are no moral victories.’’
So where do Fleck and the Gophers go from here? They need improvement in the passing game, players getting healthy, youngsters maturing quickly and even some good fortune to stop the bleeding.
First, the Gophers need more productivity at quarterback. Conor Rhoda passed for only 101 yards and committed two turnovers — a fumble on first-and-goal from the Purdue 8 in the second quarter and a fourth-down interception from the Boilermakers 27 that Ja’Whaun Bentley returned 76 yards for a TD with 10 seconds left. Rhoda has three red-zone turnovers this season.
Fleck termed the passing game “deficient’’ during his Sunday appearance on WCCO Radio. But would he replace Rhoda with Demry Croft, the former co-starter who returned last week from a disciplinary suspension? After the game, Fleck sounded as if he would not.
“He’s just back,’’ Fleck said of Croft, who took second-team snaps before the game but did not play against Purdue. “I’ve got to be able to trust you. I’ve got to be able to trust you’re going to do all the right things before you lead this football team. Conor deserves that. Just because he’s made a few mistakes — he’s really led this football team.’’
Hampering the passing attack was the loss of receiver Phillip Howard, who did not return after a hard hit to the head on the second play from scrimmage. With the receiving corps thin, the Gophers ran 47 times, gaining 227 yards, and passed only 25 times.
Howard’s injury was one of three suffered by Gophers starters on Saturday. Offensive tackle Nick Connelly hurt a leg in the first quarter, as did cornerback Kiondre Thomas early in the fourth.
The secondary is of utmost concern. Standout safety Antoine Winfield Jr. missed the game because of a hamstring injury suffered against Maryland, and his status for this week’s game against Michigan State is uncertain. The other starting safety, Duke McGhee, sat out a second game under suspension, though he returned to the team last week. And Coney Durr, still not 100 percent back from a torn ACL, replaced Thomas.
Fleck stressed that freshmen, both true and redshirt, must be ready to play.
“The biggest response is everybody has to understand they’re going to play,” he said. “But I don’t I know if everybody takes me seriously when I say that. Because you’re in [the game], and it’s, ‘Oh my gosh, it actually got to me.’ You have to perform. We have to get better.”
That needs to happen in a hurry because the schedule stiffens, beginning Saturday against No. 21 Michigan State, which just beat then-No. 7 Michigan. The homecoming game against downtrodden Illinois on Oct. 21 could be the last one in which the Gophers are favored. After that, they travel to Iowa and Michigan, host Nebraska, travel to Northwestern and host No. 7 Wisconsin to close the season. They likely need a couple of upsets to gain three more wins for the six needed for bowl eligibility.
“I’ve been through this before. I’ve been through Year 1 before,’’ Fleck said. “It’s not easy for anybody.”
Randy Johnson covers college football for the Star Tribune. firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @RJStrib