P.J. Fleck has taken pride in explaining how the Gophers football team celebrates each victory before turning the page to move onto the next game. Under Fleck’s plan, the same will apply to processing the Gophers’ first loss of the season on Saturday in Iowa before focusing on next Saturday’s game at Northwestern.
But one has to wonder when Fleck really will be able to turn the page on eighth-ranked Minnesota’s 23-19 loss to the No. 20 Hawkeyes. This wasn’t the type of setback anyone gets over quickly — especially when the coach plays a key role in the defeat.
The Gophers trailed by 17 points in the first half and yet had numerous opportunities to rally for a victory that would have kept them two games ahead of Wisconsin in the Big Ten West. Instead, the Gophers (9-1, 6-1) are only a game up on the Badgers (8-2, 5-2) and the division title now likely will come down to the regular-season finale between the teams on Nov. 30 at TCF Bank Stadium. (The Gophers will play at Northwestern next Saturday and Wisconsin will play host to Purdue, so there will be no excuse for either team losing.)
Fleck’s commitment to move on after a win or a loss might be noble, but the 38-year-old must realize there are many elements of this game that should stick with him if he’s going to become a better in-game coach. Fleck’s decision to kick a field goal near the end of the first half down 17 instead of going for a touchdown from the Iowa 2-yard line potentially cost Minnesota precious points. If the Gophers offense wasn’t good maybe that would have been the right call but that isn’t the case. It should have been 20-10 at halftime.
Wide receiver Tyler Johnson, who is having a marvelous season, had a huge drop on fourth-and-4 on a pass in Iowa territory with just over a minute left in the third quarter and the Gophers down by seven. Johnson took a hard hit after the drop, drawing a flag on the Hawkeyes. That wouldn’t have given Minnesota a first down but would have put Iowa deep in its territory.
Only Fleck darted onto the field and also was given a penalty. Fleck said afterward he was concered about Johnson being injured. Fleck’s mistake did not cost the Gophers a first down — the penalty against the Hawkeyes came after the pass hit the ground — but it was the kind of error that would (rightfully) draw the ire of any coach.
The Gophers were down by 10 points with 3:30 left in the fourth quarter when they let the play clock run down too far and ended up burning a precious timeout. That left the Gophers with only one remaining in the game. Rodney Smith scored on a 1-yard run out of the timeout to make it a four-point game, but Brock Walker’s point-after attempt failed.
That was followed by an onside kick with 3:26 remaining in regulation that was recovered by Iowa. While the Gophers only had one timeout left, it was still puzzling as to why Minnesota would attempt to go onside with that much time remaining. Sure enough, Iowa went three-and-out before punting from the Gophers 42-yard line.
Minnesota got the ball back at its own 20 with 1:35 left and no timeouts. Tanner Morgan was injured when he was sacked on second down, and backup quarterback Cole Kramer came in and threw an incompletion toward Rashod Bateman before being intercepted by Riley Moss at midfield. That last pass came on fourth-and-21 from the Gophers 9 as they moved backward throughout the series.
“We know we didn’t play well,” Fleck told reporters in Iowa City. “I didn’t coach well, our coaches didn’t coach well. It’s a team loss. But I take the most amount of responsibility for this loss. … I take the majority if not all of the blame because I did not have our players playing their best.”
It goes beyond that.
Fleck and his coaching staff have spent much of this season proving that they are very good at installing schemes and getting the right personnel to fit those schemes. Because the Gophers won their first five conference games by an average of 26.8 points, Fleck’s actual in-game management wasn’t often on display. In fairness, I don’t recall anything that stood out in a negative way in Minnesota’s 31-26 victory last Saturday over the Nittany Lions.
The Iowa loss was a different story and should serve as a learning experience from Fleck and his team. Although the Fox announcers would have had you think the Gophers’ dream season was now over, that is far from the case. They will fall in the College Football Playoff rankings and have no real chance at being in the four-team playoff.
Anyone who has followed Gophers football for an extended period of time isn’t going to be complaining. If Minnesota wins next week at 2-8 Northwestern and then beats the Badgers, the Gophers will be headed to the Big Ten title game and possibly the Rose Bowl. (The Rose Bowl isn’t part of the College Football Playoff this season, so Ohio State won’t be going because the Buckeyes almost certainly will be in the playoff.)
Anyone who follows Minnesota football will celebrate a Rose Bowl berth, no questions asked. But that doesn’t let Fleck off the hook for Saturday. If that had been Mike Zimmer on the sideline, the criticism from Vikings fans would have lasted for days. Fleck certainly was and will be critiqued for his work, but he also has a chance to learn from what went wrong in Iowa.
That will require a willingness to not put this loss entirely in the rearview mirror.