– The Gophers on Saturday night were good enough to stay in a tight game against Iowa until the very end, but just not good enough to emerge with a victory.

That’s become a common thread running through the Big Ten season for this team. As was the case in losses to Maryland, Purdue and Michigan State, the Gophers had their chances — and squandered some golden ones — in the 17-10 loss to the Hawkeyes at Kinnick Stadium. Even during last week’s “you darn well better beat Illinois” game, Minnesota found a way to allow the Illini to hang around late into the second half.

On the surface, the season has taken on a “Groundhog Day” feel, with the tight losses leaving the Gophers 4-4 overall and 1-4 in the Big Ten two-thirds of the way through coach P.J. Fleck’s inaugural season in Minneapolis. If you dig a little deeper, however, Saturday’s game showed signs of a program taking small steps forward.

The obvious sign of progress has been the Gophers defense. Against Iowa, the Gophers forced the Hawkeyes to punt nine times and held them to 3-for-14 on third-down chances. Minnesota also forced two turnovers in Gophers territory, which were vital in keeping the score in check.

The defense, of course, wasn’t perfect against the Hawkeyes. Iowa scored its two touchdowns on its first possession of the first quarter, striking in five plays, and on its first drive of the third quarter. Those scripted situations showed where the Hawkeyes found an edge.

“The effort was there, but our execution wasn’t,” Gophers linebacker Thomas Barber said of the Hawkeyes’ opening haymaker. “… We really bounced back after that. We just played football.”

Barber, a sophomore, is one of those points of progress on defense. The first-year starter has reached double figures in tackles in all five Big Ten games and leads the conference with 50 solo tackles and is second in total tackles (75). Undersized but speedy defensive end Carter Coughlin has stepped up, too, ranking sixth in the Big Ten in sacks (4.5) and tackles for loss (8.5).

Fleck and defensive coordinator Robb Smith had to cobble together a secondary that was without three starters — playmaking safety Antoine Winfield Jr. and cornerbacks Antonio Shenault and Kiondre Thomas. That forced a pair of true freshmen, Ken Handy-Holly and Justus Harris, to start. “These aren’t true freshmen we’re throwing in there, saying, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re the best one we’ve ever seen, so you’re going to start the beginning of the year,’ ” Fleck said. “These are freshmen that are being forced into playing due to depth and injury issues.”

While Harris was picked on by the Hawkeyes in his first start, Handy-Holly was solid. He forced and recovered a fumble at the Gophers 21-yard line late in the first half, prompting Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz to launch an obscenity-peppered tirade at Big Ten replay officials in the press box.

On offense, the signs of progress, especially at quarterback, take some digging to find. On Saturday, Demry Croft made his second start overall and first on the road. Though his passing stats — 9-for-29 for 139 yards with an interception — weren’t a thing of beauty, his pocket presence and poise were improved from his 5-for-15, 47-yard, two-interception effort against Illinois. Croft also was hurt by a couple of uncharacteristic drops by go-to receiver Tyler Johnson, one that would have been for a TD, and a short route in the end zone by tight end Nate Wozniak overthrown by Croft on fourth-and-1 in the first quarter.

“[Croft] took major strides [Saturday] — not enough strides to win the football game — but we’ll continue to take it step by step,” Fleck said.

Step by step, even if they’re baby steps, has become the Gophers’ 2017 path.


Randy Johnson covers college football for the Star Tribune. E-mail: rjohnson@startribune.com. Twitter: @RJStrib