The Gophers have hit their first metaphorical bump in the road.
Up until this point, they were on a one-way carpool lane to stardom, undefeated at 9-0 with talks of New Year’s Six bowl games and a national championship playoff berth. But the Gophers skidded onto a patch of black — and yellow — ice at Iowa on Saturday, spinning them out of control and denting their perfect record with a 23-19 loss.
The Gophers still are reeling. And their next game, at Northwestern, will establish which direction they’ve settled on once the momentum subsided. They could find themselves a little bruised but still tracking toward their destination. Or they could be completely turned around, facing the terrifying view of full-speed oncoming traffic.
With two games left in the regular season, the Gophers have a one-game lead on Wisconsin — their Nov. 30 opponent — in the Big Ten West. They fell four spots in the Associated Press rankings when the number of undefeated teams in the FBS whittled down from five to three in Week 12. But they’re still No. 11. And all their goals — the Big Ten Championship Game, the Rose Bowl or a potential pick for the College Football Playoff — still are achievable.
The only difference is now the Gophers know how to lose.
“It’s one game that we lost by four points to a very good Iowa team in a rivalry game,” Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said. “It does not take away from the nine things they’ve done, accomplished before this or the 45 other ‘nevers’ or restored moments. … [It] takes away none of that. All it does is make us not undefeated anymore.”
That, though, is disappointing, especially after the Gophers knocked off then-No. 4 Penn State in Week 11, garnering their highest AP ranking at No. 7 since 1962 and a No. 8 CFP ranking, plus unprecedented national attention. But if the Gophers dwell on this tough loss, they could end up with the most depressing 9-3 regular season of all time, with a trip to the Outback Bowl — or potentially worse — feeling more like a consolation than reward after letting grander exploits dissolve.
The Gophers will rely on the same mentality they have had all season to avoid that. They’ve preached starting every week at 0-0, focusing only on going 1-0 against whichever opponent was on the schedule next. That served them well in victories, with Fleck saying there was no indication in practice last week the Gophers were heading for a letdown after Penn State. But it might be even more vital in defeat.
“This season could go two ways,” linebacker Thomas Barber said. “We can end up losing the next two. Or having this be a wake-up call for us and not having it later in the season. So it definitely, it still helps us from getting on a downward spiral.”
Receiver Tyler Johnson said that shows up within games, too, when the Gophers focus on the next play instead of obsessing on mistakes or reveling in successes. It’s about having “tunnel vision” to “live in the moment,” according to Johnson. That’s how the Gophers came within four points with minutes to play at Iowa despite a 20-3 disadvantage in the first half.
“We went 0-1 in the Iowa season. It’s over with. Now as a team, we just have to turn the next page,” running back Rodney Smith said. “We still can do what we set out to accomplish. Just get back to work.”
Fleck said he follows the same strategy after a loss as after a win, allowing the players to feel hurt instead of celebratory Saturday night before coming to practice Sunday ready to analyze the game and improve. He doesn’t want his players to lose sight of what remains possible. The same goes for Minnesota fans, who seem to expect disillusionment after decades of mediocrity.
“This is not the end of the world,” Fleck said. “… Everything we want and everything we wrote down is right in front of us. Nothing’s changed. … How many times after Week , when we’re 9-1 at the University of Minnesota, is everything right in front of us, and we control our own destiny? How many times does that happen?”
The Gophers are still strapped into the driver’s seat. They just can’t loosen their grip on the steering wheel.