What has happened?
That was the first thought that came to mind on Friday night in watching the Gophers get embarrassed 35-7 by Iowa at TCF Bank Stadium. It wasn’t that the performance didn’t look familiar, but this was the type of ineptitude we became used to under Jim Wacker or Tim Brewster. This wasn’t supposed to happen in P.J. Fleck’s fourth year — not coming off an 11-2 season in which expectations were high and there was a confidence that this program’s days of embarrassing defeats were behind.
Instead, the Gophers got run off their own field by the Hawkeyes, who dropped Minnesota to 1-3. That’s bad enough but for anyone who has seen the three losses it’s actually much worse. Michigan came into TCF Bank Stadium and crushed the Gophers, 49-24, in the opener. The Wolverines lost their next two games, proving they aren’t very good. The Gophers went to Maryland, took a 17-point lead into the fourth quarter and were then outscored 24-6 in a one-point overtime loss. Minnesota gave up 675 yards — yes, 675 — in that defeat to a team that had lost by 40 to Northwestern in its opener.
If there was any hope gained by the Gophers’ 41-14 victory over Illinois and its fourth-string quarterback last Saturday, that was erased by the performance of Fleck’s club on Friday. Quarterback Tanner Morgan and the offense, so good last season, looked lost and was forced to rely on running back Mo Ibrahim, even when it made zero sense to keep running the ball. The defense, which gave up 346 yards, has developed a knack for giving up huge chunks of yards.
This is point of the column where the Gophers’ faithful interrupts to offer a variety of excuses for what has happened. The defense had four players selected in the NFL draft after last season, including standout safety Antoine Winfield Jr. Wide receiver Tyler Johnson, like Winfield, was taken in the draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The right side of the offensive line also is gone and Mike Sanford Jr., replaced Kirk Ciarrocca as offensive coordinator. Oh, and don’t forget the pandemic has altered a season that at one point was going to be delayed until the spring.
The problem with playing this game is it ignores the fact that the Gophers’ 2019 success — which included a victory over Auburn in the Outback Bowl — was supposed to be a springboard to no longer having to make excuses and certainly no longer serving as a punching bag for Big Ten rivals. What Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz did on Friday — going for two points up 26-0 in the fourth quarter, or calling three consecutive timeouts just before the Gophers scored their only touchdown with 19 seconds left in the game — was the type of embarrassment that used to be reserved for Brewster’s teams.
“(The Gophers) called a timeout, I guess, to get a look at what we were doing and reconsider,” Ferentz said. “So we just wanted to make sure we got a good look at what they were doing. No sense in taking (the timeouts) on the bus with us. … Figured we’d take Floyd (of Rosedale) with us and leave the timeouts here.”
— SKOR North (@SKORNorth) November 14, 2020
That was quite the slap in the face delivered to Fleck, who entered his fourth season with many Gophers fans asking when he might be leaving for a marquee job. That concern has vanished, replaced by questions about what has gone wrong with a team that returned the majority of its offensive starters?
When the season opened, there was talk about Morgan being one of the better quarterbacks in college football, but on Friday he looked like a guy without a clue facing. Morgan finished 16-of-33 for 167 yards with two interceptions. He also was sacked four times and while he did throw a touchdown to Rashod Batemen the score meant nothing. Bateman finished with eight receptions for 111 yards.
Bateman has gone over 100 yards receiving in three of his four games this season and will be a first-round pick in the NFL draft. But Sanford’s inability to dial up plays for him when it matters most is mystifying.
Bateman had opted-out before the season because of the pandemic, but reconsidered when the Big Ten decided to play football this fall. Considering just how poorly things have gone for the Gophers, no one could blame Bateman if he decided to walk away now and not risk being injured in the final four games.
Fleck has bigger concerns at this point, including finding a way to get his team back on track to at least keep rivalry games competitive. The Gophers lost 38-17 to Wisconsin in their regular-season finale last year at TCF Bank Stadium. That returned Paul Bunyan’s Axe to the Badgers and gave them the Big Ten West title over Minnesota. That loss was disappointing for the Gophers, but did nothing to dampen the confidence that Fleck had the program headed in the right direction.
On Friday, that confidence continued to be shaken and there is no excuse for that.