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Mistakes cost Gophers in first loss of the season, a narrow defeat at Iowa

When traveling to Iowa City, records are always thrown out the window. It takes strong execution and disciplined play to leave with a victory. When No. 8 Minnesota appeared to be mounting a comeback against No. 20 Iowa, a costly mistake would always knock them off track.

Dropped passes, missed tackles, late timeouts, penalties and sacks were all critical lapses that contributed to the Gophers’ 23-19 road loss. There were several moments where Minnesota had a chance to grab hold of the game, but ultimately let it slip out of reach. It’s the team’s first loss of the season. 

Right away, the Gophers dug themselves into an early 20-3 hole and had trouble finding a way out. In the first half, Minnesota’s defense played a heavy dose of zone coverage and Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley was comfortable in the pocket. Stanley completed 14 of his 23 passes for 173 yards and two touchdowns.

Defensive coordinator Joe Rossi adjusted in the second half by playing more man coverage and sending pressure. After falling behind quickly, the defense made adequate tweaks and dialed up more aggressive looks. The unit’s effort was one of the reasons why Minnesota stayed within striking distance.

Offensive mistakes were costly

All day, the Gophers’ offense moved the ball, but didn’t finish drives.

For example, in the second quarter, Minnesota faced a 4th-and-1 situation in Iowa territory. Running back Rodney Smith picked up a first-down, but tight end Bryce Witham was called for holding. On the next play, quarterback Tanner Morgan scrambled for a first down on fourth-and-5.

However, the Gophers’ offense again failed to capitalize. On second-and-18, wide receiver Rashod Bateman was wide-open over the middle, but dropped a pass. If he made the grab, there’s a chance he would have scored a touchdown and trimmed Iowa’s lead to ten points.

Late in the first half, a pass interference penalty put the Gophers at Iowa’s two-yard-line with four seconds remaining in the half. P.J. Fleck elected to kick a field goal and took a two-possession deficit into halftime. This decision didn’t seem to impact the game as much, especially considering the Gophers’ offense immediately scored a touchdown out of halftime.

At the midway point of the third quarter, Tanner Morgan was sacked by defensive end A.J. Epenesa. The negative play quickly placed Minnesota in a long-down situation. The offense worked its way back, but a dropped pass by Tyler Johnson on fourth-and-4 ended the drive.

Johnson had separation and plenty of green grass in front him, but the ball bounced off his hands. He was hit late by the defender and Iowa was flagged for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. The foul occurred after the play, so it didn’t help Minnesota retain possession. Moments later, head coach P.J. Fleck ran onto the field and was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct. However, both dead ball penalties offset and the Gophers only lost some field position.

Despite Minnesota’s inefficiency in the red zone, the offense still moved the ball. Quarterback Tanner Morgan was composed in the pocket and kept the Gophers in this game. Morgan was 25-for-36 with 368 yards and a touchdown. Wide receiver Tyler Johnson had nine catches for 170 yards and a touchdown, but his fourth-and-4 drop was costly.

Minnesota started strong in the second half with a quick six-play, 66-yard touchdown drive. Right away, Rodney Smith popped off an 18-yard inside run and the Gophers got into a rhythm through the RPO game. Morgan beautifully stepped up in the pocket to find Rashod Bateman over the middle for 12 yards. Two plays later, he sold the RPO fake, the safety bit and he perfectly placed a 28-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Johnson.

When Minnesota was trying to mount a late comeback, Morgan completed six of his seven passes for 72 yards.  On third-and-8, he felt pressure and connected with running back Mohamed Ibrahim for 15 yards off a Texas concept. Minnesota found the end zone and nearly trimmed Iowa’s lead to three points, but another mistake occurred. Kicker Brock Walker missed the extra point, which provided the Hawkeyes with a touchdown cushion.

Minnesota tried an onside kick with 3:27 remaining and the attempt was unsuccessful. The Gophers’ defense forced a three-and-out, but the shift in field position meant Minnesota’s offense needed to go 80 yards to win the game. All day, the offensive line couldn’t consistently protect Morgan and the trend continued in the final moments. Iowa posted back-to-back sacks as A.J. Epenesa turned the corner against Sam Schlueter. Minnesota’s left tackle struggled against the Hawkeyes’ future first-round pick. Tanner Morgan was injured on the play and head coach P.J. Fleck told reporters the quarterback was “woozy and wobbly.” It will be important to monitor his status ahead of next Saturday’s game at Northwestern.

The defensive adjustments

Minnesota’s defense decided to play quite a bit of zone and off coverage early in the game. Quarterback Nate Stanley took advantage by firing passes into the coverage soft spots.

On the Hawkeyes’ first drive, they used misdirection and tossed to running back Tyler Goodson for 26 yards. Edge contain was lost on the perimeter and it led to an explosive running play. A few plays later, Minnesota placed Iowa into a third-and-long situation, but couldn’t convert a sack in the backfield. After a short fourth-down conversion, Nate Stanley found Nico Ragaini for a 21-yard touchdown. Safety Jordan Howden was playing the back half and Ragaini had extensive separation off a corner route.

On Iowa’s second drive of the game, Stanley moved the Iowa offense up the field and completed all four of his pass attempts for 56 yards, including a five-yard strike to Ihmir Smith-Marsette. The score was set up by a mesh concept over the middle that picked the second-level of the Gophers’ defense.

The Hawkeyes blended in off tackle running and the stretch zone scheme. Minnesota’s defense struggled to tackle and took inadequate angles in the second-level. It’s something you can’t do against an Iowa stretch rushing scheme that gets defenses moving horizontally. In the first half, Minnesota’s defense surrendered 7.1 yards per carry and Nate Stanley had time to make efficient throws in the pocket.

At halftime, Minnesota’s defense made tremendous adjustments. 

After playing so much zone and off coverage in the first half, the Gophers’ defense took more chances. Minnesota played man across the board and started to send blitzes in the front-seven. As a result, cornerback Benjamin St-Juste had two aggressive pass breakups. During a third-down early in the third quarter, Rossi perfectly timed a stunt with linebacker Kamal Martin and edge rusher Boye Mafe. Mafe sacked Nate Stanley and the defense managed to get off the field.

Late in the game, on third-and-11 near midfield, defensive coordinator Joe Rossi dialed up a blitz package. Pass rusher Carter Coughlin looped inside off a stunt and linebacker Braelen Oliver was sent off the edge. Oliver sacked Stanley and forced an Iowa punt.

In the final minutes, Minnesota’s defense also had a chance to grab a key takeaway, but an errant pass by Nate Stanley brushed off cornerback Coney Durr’s fingertips. Iowa converted with a field goal and extended its lead to ten points.

Despite all of these mistakes, it felt like the Gophers were always one or two plays away from changing the tide of this game. However, the margin for error was very small against a talented Iowa team in their house.


Previous Story Zulgad: Far from perfect: Gophers’ loss to Hawkeyes is one P.J. Fleck shouldn’t put in rearview mirror Next Story Here’s how far the Gophers tumbled in the college football rankings after loss at Iowa