His right forefinger and thumb a couple of inches apart, P.J. Fleck wanted to make a point about his Gophers football team.

“We’re this close,” Fleck said, but acknowledged, “That gap in between there is a lot of work.”

That gap was evident Saturday afternoon at TCF Bank Stadium as Iowa defeated the Gophers 48-31, sending Minnesota to a second consecutive Big Ten loss following a 3-0 nonconference start. And now, the going gets even tougher for the Gophers, who travel to No. 3 Ohio State this week to face a Buckeyes team averaging 49 points per game.

“I saw a ton of growth in a lot of areas,” Fleck said after Iowa won its fourth consecutive against the Gophers. “… Until we keep growing as a team, some of the results could be like that.”

That’s the Gophers’ reality right now. The combination of starting freshmen in several key positions and losing their two best players, running back Rodney Smith and safety Antoine Winfield Jr., because of injuries means the Gophers must learn on the fly in Big Ten play.

On Saturday, the lessons came with mixed results. The Gophers scored 31 points, their most in Big Ten play since hanging 54 on Nebraska last Nov. 11. The defense had two takeaways — Jacob Huff’s interception and 21-yard return late in the second quarter and Carter Coughlin’s strip sack of Nate Stanley in the third — that set up the offense at the Iowa 6-yard line or closer.

Conversely, the Gophers showed several problems that led to the loss. Stanley shredded Minnesota’s defense for 314 passing yards and four touchdowns, and he was especially lethal on third down, when he went 10-for-16 for 198 yards and two TDs. “You’re going to lead the country if that’s your percentage,” Fleck said of the Hawkeyes, who were a combined 12-for-21 on third and fourth down.

With Winfield out, Antonio Shenault moved from cornerback to safety, and Iowa took advantage when Ihmir Smith-Marsette was left wide open for a 60-yard scoring play in the first quarter. “Whoever’s on that field, I have to get to do their job — just like if our best player had been in there,” Fleck said. “That’s on me.”

Gophers true freshman quarterback Zack Annexstad threw three TD passes but was intercepted three times. He also was sacked five times, and the Gophers rushed for 86 yards, averaging only 2.8 yards per carry. In the second half, Fleck replaced starting right tackle Sam Schlueter with massive true freshman Daniel Faalele.

Fleck saw much to like from Annexstad, who tried to stretch Iowa’s defenses with deep throws called by the coaching staff.

“He’s missing small; he’s not far off,” Fleck said. “Our whole team is this close, and he’s an example of it’s this close. Because I tell you what: He’s a pretty good player.”

The coach was impressed, too, with Annexstad’s ability to fight through his left ankle injury after being hobbled for a bit after taking a few hits in the first half.

“I was told a long time ago, ‘If you have a tough quarterback, you have a tough team,’ ” Fleck said. “Zack Annexstad is becoming tough.”

Still, it all added up to experience gained but another Big Ten loss, the Gophers’ fourth in a row dating to last year. And that takes us back to that gap Fleck referenced.

“That’s a lot of detail, that’s a lot of fundamentals, that’s a lot of trust, that’s a lot of camaraderie, that’s a lot of belief,” he said. “All those little things. We’ve got to close that gap every single week.”


Randy Johnson covers college football for the Star Tribune. Twitter: @RJStrib E-mail: rjohnson@startribune.