The recap: For the fourth time in five Big Ten games, the Gophers found a way to stay in a game late only to see the opponent make key plays down the stretch to squelch a comeback. The Gophers (4-4, 1-4 Big Ten) rallied from 14-0 and 17-7 deficits to twice cut the lead by the Hawkeyes (5-3, 2-3) to a touchdown in the fourth quarter, but Iowa got a key 17-yard gain on third down on a pass from Nate Stanley to Noah Fant to help bleed the clock. The Gophers had a last chance, getting the ball with 1:20 left at their 15-yard-line with no timeouts left, but quarterback Demry Croft was sacked on fourth down with 56 seconds left. Croft struggled early and finished 9-for-29 for 139 yards. Twice in the first quarter, the Gophers moved inside the Iowa 15, but Croft and tight end Nate Wozniak couldn’t connect on a fourth-down pass in the end zone, and shortly after, Croft’s pass was tipped and intercepted in the end zone.
“The plays were there to be made, we just didn’t make them,’’ coach P.J. Fleck said.
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Trophy hunting not going well
The Gophers continue to come up short in their three major trophy games, losing Floyd of Rosedale to Iowa for the third consecutive year and for the eighth straight time in Iowa City. Since 1990, they are 16-61 in trophy games, going 9-19 against Iowa, 2-20 in the Little Brown Jug game against Michigan and 5-22 in the Paul Bunyan’s Axe battle with Wisconsin.
“Like I told them, I apologize to the seniors that we couldn’t get them a pig for their senior year,’’ Fleck said, “but they did everything they could to get it.’’
One of the story lines entering the game centered on how the Gophers would distribute carries among their three featured running backs — Rodney Smith, Shannon Brooks and Kobe McCrary. Smith ended up getting the bulk of the work, rushing 15 times for 82 yards. Brooks carried nine times for 40 yards, and McCrary rushed seven times for 22 yards and a fourth-quarter touchdown.
Because of injuries that continue to ravage the Gophers secondary, true freshman cornerback Justus Harris made his first start, and it was a tough one. He was beaten on Fant’s 45-yard TD reception in the third quarter and was called for a tight pass interference penalty in the fourth quarter. Still, Fleck liked Harris’ resolve.
“He should not be playing right now, but he’s playing — and that’s a compliment to him,’’ Fleck said. “… He’s going to fail and grow, but I’m proud of his response. He’s tough as nails.’’
Up next: at Michigan
6:30 p.m. Saturday, Michigan Stadium. TV: BTN
The Gophers will try to win the Little Brown Jug for the first time since 2014 against a Michigan team that hasn’t lived up to preseason expectations. The last time these teams meet — on Halloween night in 2015 — Michigan prevailed 29-26 at TCF Bank Stadium. With Tracy Claeys taking over as coach, the Gophers had the ball inside the 1-yard-line with 19 seconds left but let precious seconds tick off the clock, getting only two unsuccessful plays off.
The Wolverines (6-2, 3-2) are coming off a 35-14 victory over Rutgers and have made a change at quarterback. Redshirt freshman Brandon Peters took over for John O’Korn and went 10-for-14 for 124 yards and a TD. “It was time,’’ coach Jim Harbaugh said. “Like a bird leaving the nest, a kid leaving the house.’’