IOWA CITY — They played it safe and got burned. When the moment called for guts, the Gophers coaching staff retreated into a shell.
Don't look at the end of the game and Iowa's mind-boggling gift that opened the door to a potential unfathomable finish. The tide turned at the beginning and middle. That's where the Gophers blew their chance to win at Kinnick Stadium for the first time since 1999.
Too many conservative decisions. Too many errant passes. In a game that figured to be narrow, the Gophers needed to maximize opportunities. Instead, they went risk-averse and kicked field goals.
P.J. Fleck should look back at Saturday's 27-22 loss to Iowa with nothing but regret because the outcome had nothing to do with effort. His players competed fiercely.
The difference came down to execution and leaving points on the field when being aggressive was the necessary move.
Will Fleck ever come to the realization that being ultraconservative isn't the recipe for success against quality teams? His steadfast adherence to "Tressel-ball" backfires when the opponent offers more resistance than a pushover. In one instance when they took a risk on fourth down, they were rewarded with a Cole Kramer-to-Ko Kieft touchdown pass.
Problem A is being too conservative. Problem B is the quarterback position.
Tanner Morgan threw a 68-yard touchdown pass late, but the senior misfired too many times with erratic throws.
In his 36th career start, Morgan got outplayed by a sophomore making his first start. Iowa's coaches showed more faith in Alex Padilla in their play calls than the Gophers staff showed in Morgan.
Fleck needs to conduct a thorough and honest examination to understand why Morgan has regressed to this degree under offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. There is a galaxy in between Morgan in 2019 and his 2021 version.
Fleck is now 0-5 against Iowa, but more importantly, his team no longer controls its destiny in the Big Ten West race. Every decision and every play gets dissected with extra scrutiny in a game of this magnitude.
The Gophers outgained Iowa 409-277 in yards, won the turnover battle and doubled up the Hawkeyes in time of possession. And still lost.
They lost because they kicked three field goals inside the red zone. They lost because they dropped two potential interceptions. They lost because Sanford called a swing pass on third-and-6 that lost three yards and then Fleck followed that by asking his kickoff specialist to attempt a 53-yard field goal that got blocked.
The second possession of the game set an ominous tone.
The Gophers had the ball first-and-goal from the Iowa 5. Morgan followed a short run by throwing the ball late after tight end Kieft wiggled open in the end zone. A run on third down moved the ball to the 2-yard line.
Fleck played it safe on fourth down and kicked a 20-yard field goal. That moment screamed for the Gophers to make a statement behind a big, physical, veteran offensive line.
Fast forward to the final minute of the first half. The Gophers had the ball at the Iowa 16 with 56 seconds left. Plenty of time to try to score a touchdown.
Fleck/Sanford called two running plays. Mar'Keise Irving's 1-yard run on third down to the 14-yard line looked close enough to the marker to warrant a measurement. The officials signaled fourth down, and Fleck opted not to call his final timeout.
He let 20 seconds tick off the clock and settled for a field goal for a 13-10 halftime lead. The deficit could have been larger.
Naturally, Fleck defended the play-calling.
"You get a sack and you're out of field-goal range," he said. "We're playing for points. We're going to go up 13-10 at halftime. We just didn't execute the two plays."
The play-calling showed little faith in Morgan, who passed for only 115 yards outside of his 68-yard touchdown pass to Chris Autman-Bell off a double move late in the game.
One example among many: The Gophers had the ball at the Iowa 18 in the third quarter. On second-and-9, Sanford called Morgan off the field and sent in the Kramer package for a run up the middle that netted 2 yards.
Morgan returned on third-and-7, completed a pass short of the sticks and the Gophers settled for another short field goal.
That's a strange way to operate an offense with a veteran quarterback. If they don't trust him in that situation, something is seriously wrong.