IOWA CITY – The Gophers missed enough tackles and committed enough other mistakes Saturday to conclude their undefeated 9-0 season didn’t slip right through their hands in a single instance during their 23-19 loss at Iowa.
Still, if there’s one moment that Gophers fans who drove south in caravans might remember most and coach P.J. Fleck won’t forget, it was a fourth-down play late in the third quarter and deep in Iowa territory that dropped incomplete just when the Big Ten’s West Division leaders were poised to tie the score after earlier trailing 20-3.
Facing fourth-and-4 from the Iowa 14-yard line, trailing now by only seven points with an unproven replacement kicker, Fleck chose to go for the first down and/or a touchdown.
Gophers star receiver Tyler Johnson — already the recipient of his team’s first touchdown, on a 28-yard pass right after halftime — ran a slant from the left side over the middle but dropped a pass that hit him square in the midsection only strides from the end zone.
After Johnson took a couple steps, Iowa freshman defensive back Dane Belton flattened him to the Kinnick Stadium turf with a late hit. Whistles were blown and officials’ flags were thrown from all directions. Fleck sprinted onto the field to check on his prone player.
When it was all over, the Hawkeyes gained possession with their lead intact. Both Belton and Fleck received unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, and Johnson took responsibility for letting the ball and maybe even the game go through his fingers.
“Definitely, definitely, that was nobody but me,” Johnson said.
Though Belton and Fleck were penalized for the same offense, the penalties were not offsetting. Belton’s penalty moved the ball half the distance to the goal, from the Iowa 14 to its 7-yard line. Fleck’s 15-yard penalty moved that back to the 22 and moved the Hawkeyes out of the shadow of their own goalposts — a net 8-yard gain.
Iowa didn’t score on that possession, but the Hawkeyes did increase their lead to 23-13 with a field goal on their next, midway through the fourth quarter. The Gophers scored a touchdown and missed the extra point with 3:27 left for the final four-point margin.
Fleck owned his decision afterward.
“I’d do it all over again,” he said. “I was told [by the game officials] that I ran onto the field too fast. I get that, but I didn’t know when there’s a red light and a green lift to tell us when we go on the field.”
Fleck said he heard the whistle that ended the play and saw his player “motionless” on the turf. He noted in his postgame news conference that he was on the Rutgers staff in 2010 when lineman Eric LeGrand was paralyzed from a collision during a game.
“I run on the field to make sure my player is OK and then to make sure he can’t stay in the game,” Fleck said.
More than a few Gophers fans were hopeful their team’s drive would live on as soon as the flag was thrown in Belton’s direction.
Big Ten director of officials Bill Carollo, in a postgame statement, said, “The play is over the second the ball hits the ground as an incomplete pass. The ruling was enforced correctly.”
Johnson praised Fleck for being quick to his side.
“Coach Fleck was just being a great coach right there,” Johnson said. “He cares a lot about all of us players and when something like that happens, he’s usually the first one to come check. Coach Fleck was just doing his job.”
Fleck said more than once that he would do it all over again if given another chance.
“I’m 38 years old; I mean, I can run,” he said. “I’m going to make sure I’m the first one [Gophers players] see when they open their eyes or to make sure that play gets stopped.”