IOWA CITY – That one was there for the taking, a winnable game if the Gophers had any semblance of a passing game. Or if they hadn’t relied so heavily on their passing game in the first half.
This is their dilemma in P.J. Fleck’s first season. They can’t trust their quarterbacks. Or, as we witnessed in the first half of a 17-10 loss to Iowa, they trust their quarterback too much at the expense of their talented trio of running backs. Their receivers also contributed to the mess with a bad case of butter fingers.
The Hawkeyes extended their winning streak over the Gophers at Kinnick Stadium to eight games, but Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz has fielded far more talented teams than his current one.
The Gophers defense looked shellshocked on the game’s opening series but dug in after that to give its offense a chance. The defense was spirited and physical and swarming. It played winning football.
It’s a shame the offense didn’t bring much to the table.
Croft’s final stat line was a blight: 9-for-29 for 139 yards with one interception thrown in the end zone. Nearly half of his yards came on a 63-yard catch by Tyler Johnson late in the fourth quarter on a poor effort by the Iowa secondary.
The Gophers can’t win that way. They own one of the worst passing offenses in college football. Their lack of a credible passing attack made their final possession feel hopeless.
They took over at their 15-yard line with 81 seconds left, needing a touchdown to force overtime. Croft threw two incompletions, scrambled for 5 yards on one play and was sacked on fourth down.
They had no prayer of moving the ball down the field.
The temptation will be to place blame solely on Croft, but he got little help from his receivers. They dropped several on-target passes and too often failed to create any separation on their routes. Croft complicated matters by holding onto the ball too long at times.
“The plays were there to be made,” Fleck said. “We just didn’t make them.”
This is becoming a theme. The Gophers have eclipsed 200 yards passing — hardly a lofty benchmark — only three times in eight games. They looked disjointed against an Iowa defense that ranks 86th nationally defending the pass.
Their game plan in the first half was confusing. All three running backs — Rodney Smith, Shannon Brooks and Kobe McCrary — were healthy and promised carries by Fleck.
Instead, the offense aired it out.
The trio combined for 17 carries in the first half. Croft threw 18 passes. That’s not an ideal ratio for this team.
The Gophers’ reliance on Croft’s arm came after he attempted only 15 passes (completing five) against Illinois last week.
Croft threw an interception and then followed that with six consecutive incompletions at one point in the first half. Drops and misfires piled up, which cost them crucial points.
The Gophers faced a fourth-and-1 from the Iowa 7 in the first quarter. Rather than pound their short-yardage hammers Brooks or McCrary, the Gophers tried to fool Iowa with a sneaky pass.
Tight end Nate Wozniak found an opening in the end zone but twisted awkwardly, causing Croft’s pass to sail over his head.
The Gophers moved the ball to midfield in the second quarter after two runs. They faced second-and-3. They tried two consecutive passes, both incompletions, and the drive stalled.
Why not keep feeding their trio of running backs who combined to average 4.6 yards per carry?
This is Fleck’s quandary: He needs to develop his passing game, but it is hindering them. Balance on offense is ideal but not when one component offers next to nothing.
Trailing 7-0, the Gophers moved into the red zone in the first quarter after their defense forced a turnover. Croft tried to force a pass to Rashad Still at the goal line. The ball was deflected and intercepted, adding to their growing list of red-zone follies.
The Gophers have too many deficiencies to overcome missed opportunities. A competent passing game would’ve put them in position to bring home the prized pig.
Is it too late to install the wishbone?