The whole thing was an abject failure. The coaching decisions. The run defense. The passing game. The costly penalties.
The Gophers played the one-win Iowa Hawkeyes on Friday night and could not have looked more overmatched. Or discombobulated. Or outcoached.
P.J. Fleck noted this week that “it’s anybody’s Big Ten to win,” and his team responded as if it is curious to see who comes out on top.
Remember how mentally and physically tough the Gophers looked in throttling Auburn in the final game of 2019? That moment feels like light years ago.
The Gophers played abysmally in all three phases — a clean sweep — as Iowa retained the bronzed pig with a 35-7 rout at TCF Bank Stadium.
Wonder if Fleck will read his team that children’s book about pooping again after this stinker?
Don’t be consumed by the sideshow at the end of the game with Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz calling a string of timeouts. The focus should rest solely on how three of the Gophers’ four games have been duds.
One sequence provided a snapshot of Friday’s mismatch.
Despite everything going wrong, the Gophers only trailed 14-0 in the third quarter. Their offense, behind Mohamed Ibrahim’s hard running, had found a little life.
The Gophers faced third-and-6 from the Iowa 20. Fleck called a timeout.
The Hawkeyes’ run defense ranks first in the Big Ten and 14th nationally. The Gophers have an All-America receiver and future first-round NFL draft pick in Rashod Bateman.
Fleck and offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. called an outside zone running play. Iowa stuffed Ibrahim for a 1-yard loss.
Fleck defended the call after the game by noting he intended to go for it on fourth down if Ibrahim came up short. He scrapped that idea when Ibrahim lost a yard.
“The whole point of that was to be able to get at least half [on third down],” Fleck said.
First, trust Bateman to get open. And a field goal would have been largely pointless considering his team’s defensive issues. He should have kept his offense on the field on fourth down, knowing he has an inconsistent kicker.
Naturally, the kick got blocked, Iowa had a 45-yard run on the first play of the ensuing drive and the Hawks turned the final quarter into a track meet of scoring.
The Gophers look overwhelmed against quality opponents. Their defense already ranked among the worst in college football, and now quarterback Tanner Morgan appears out of sorts after his record-setting sophomore season.
Morgan threw two interceptions, completed fewer than 50% of his passes and was sacked four times. He just doesn’t look comfortable, whether that’s the result of losing Tyler Johnson or the right side of his offensive line or having a new coordinator. Something is amiss.
The same problems on defense continued. The Gophers struggled to set the edge and looked slow in pursuit. Iowa’s running backs too often had wide running lanes in rolling up 235 yards.
Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz called eight consecutive running plays on one touchdown drive. There was nothing fancy or mysterious about his plan. Just keep pounding the ball on the ground until the Gophers proved they could stop it.
Then there were costly penalties, seven in the first half alone after committing only 10 total in the first three games.
Fleck received an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty that contributed to a squandered scoring opportunity after an interception by freshman linebacker James Gordon late in the first quarter.
A personal foul on Gordon’s return cost the Gophers 15 yards. Fleck then drew an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty for being on the field, which moved the ball back another 15 yards.
So, instead of taking over at Iowa’s 25, the Gophers started at their own 45. The drive stalled without points.
Fleck disagreed with the ruling, but it doesn’t matter. He got cited, just as he did last season at Iowa for sprinting onto the field to check on an injured player.
His penalty was deflating because of the lost field position, and that’s a killer for a team that is struggling and not good enough to overcome self-inflicted mistakes.