The Gophers entered September with Big Ten title hopes, believing they had a favorable schedule and what Tracy Claeys called the best team since Jerry Kill's staff first arrived in Minnesota six years ago.
But two games into conference play, the Gophers seem like also-rans again.
After last week's overtime loss at Penn State, they found themselves in another extremely winnable game Saturday against Iowa. The Gophers offense fell flat in a 14-7 loss before an announced crowd of 49,145 at TCF Bank Stadium.
"I feel like this one hurt more than Penn State because we had this one in our hands basically the whole game," Gophers linebacker Jonathan Celestin said.
Iowa (4-2, 2-1 Big Ten) looked half as potent as the team that started 12-0 last year, yet the Hawkeyes still grabbed the Floyd of Rosedale Trophy for the fourth time in seven years.
The Gophers (3-2, 0-2) were left to hope they can start rattling off wins, starting next week at Maryland. The Big Ten hasn't produced a two-loss division champion since Wisconsin in 2011, and Minnesota already sits two games behind undefeated Nebraska.
"The one thing is you can't hit a three-run homer," Gophers coach Tracy Claeys said. "One game at a time. We've got to remember that, get ready for the next one, and we're going to have to steal a couple on the road. But definitely, our margin for error is nil, or zero."
The Gophers were clinging to a 7-6 lead with less than six minutes remaining when their defense made its only big mistake of the day.
Iowa bunched three receivers in a triangle wide right, drawing four defenders to that side. Akrum Wadley took a handoff and bounced to the undermanned left side, through a hole.
Gophers linebacker Jack Lynn, who was sick coming into the game but still played, appeared frozen in his tracks for a moment and missed the tackle. Wadley had one man to beat — backup safety Jacob Huff, who was filling in for injured Antoine Winfield Jr.
Wadley made Huff miss and raced 54 yards for the touchdown.
"We've got to make the tackle," Claeys said. "If we make the tackle, we're good. Those kids battled their tail ends off, and we were missing a couple people, too. Injuries are part of the game. But defensively, we played well enough to win the football game."
The Gophers got the ball back twice after Wadley's big run.
Mitch Leidner got drilled as he released a pass and threw a wobbly interception, killing the first chance. Then, after some conservative play calling by Iowa, the Gophers fielded a punt at their 12-yard line with 1 minute, 26 seconds remaining.
The Gophers were out of timeouts and had barely moved the ball all afternoon, but they made things interesting. Leidner completed a pass to Drew Wolitarsky and two to Rashad Still. After another fine catch from Brian Smith, the Gophers had the ball at the Iowa 13, with about one minute left.
But a false start penalty pushed the Gophers back 5 yards. That's been a problem in four of five games this year.
"We were sloppy, and I think we got frustrated," Claeys said. "And we still battled and had a chance at the end."
Facing steady pressure, Leidner finished the game with four incompletions, including a last throw to Smith into the end zone.
For the game, Leidner was 13-for-33 for 166 yards, with two interceptions. The team did not make Leidner available to the media after the game, a rare occurrence for the senior quarterback.
"I mean, it's pretty obvious, we got whipped up front," Claeys said. "The offensive line — we couldn't create space. … [Leidner] never could set his feet because he had to get the heck out of the way."
The Gophers rushed for just 102 yards — including 55 from Shannon Brooks and 44 from Rodney Smith — after averaging 228.5 as a team in their first four games. Iowa entered with the Big Ten's fourth-worst rushing defense but proved too tough for the Gophers.
Again, it came down to the Minnesota offensive line. Right guard Vincent Calhoun has turf toe, so the Gophers were rotating guards with Calhoun, Connor Mayes and Jared Weyler taking turns. Center Tyler Moore played through a left arm injury, and right tackle Jonah Pirsig left the game with an ankle injury.
"You can always go and pick excuses," Claeys said. "The bottom line is you've got to do it. We've got injuries up there, a little bit, but got to find a way to get it done. That's their job description."