MINNEAPOLIS - "We did everything but win the football game."
PJ Fleck and the University of Minnesota football team uses Sunday to wipe the slate clean, put on their metaphoric leather vests and learn from the result the day before. At his weekly news conference Monday, Fleck reflected on another missed opportunity, or in Saturday’s case a few of them, to beat the Hawkeyes for the first time in his tenure.
The Gophers fell 13-10, and Fleck is now 0-6 against Iowa. Floyd of Rosedale heads back to Iowa City, and Minnesota is out of the Big Ten West race. That’s in large part due to three "catastrophic plays."
THE FIRST – Mo Ibrahim’s fumble. The sixth year senior gashed the Hawkeyes’ defense with 39 carries for 263 yards and a second quarter touchdown, good enough to be named the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week. He was pounding the Iowa defense on a potential go-ahead scoring drive in the fourth quarter. Trying to extend the football for a first down inside the Iowa 10-yard line, Ibrahim lost the ball with 5:07 to play, and the Hawkeyes recovered. At the time, it was his 12th straight carry.
Fleck defended his decision to give his star the ball in the situation on Monday. It was just his fourth fumble in 824 career carries. It’s nobody’s fault, just a case of terrible luck.
"The greatest running back, I think, possibly arguably in Minnesota history is in the backfield. Why wouldn’t you give it to him 39 times? Fleck said. "I would’ve given it to him 45 times if there was more time. He’s one of the greatest, and he can handle all that. It was set up perfectly to win the football game and we just didn’t do that."
Fleck shared an emotional moment with Ibrahim after the loss, likely Ibrahim’s last home game with the Gophers.
"I just told him how proud of him I am, how much he’s done for this program. Don’t you ever be ashamed, and don’t let anybody else tell you you should be ashamed of anything," Fleck said. "Don’t you ever be ashamed of one play. One play can win you a game, but one play cannot cost you a game. There’s too many of them, that’s all I kept telling him. He gets it."
THE SECOND – Terell Smith’s dropped interception. Just a few plays after the fumble, Spencer Petras tried to hit Leshon Williams on a short pass. He bobbled it, and Smith was right there for what could’ve been a game-changing turnover deep in Iowa territory. He couldn’t corral the football, and it fell to the turf.
Iowa eventually punted.
THE THIRD – Athan Kaliakmanis’s interception. Getting the ball back after that punt, the Gophers drove it to the Iowa 33-yard line. On 3rd-and-7, Kaliakmanis tried to hit Lemeke Brockington on a slant. All-American safety Riley Moss broke it up, and star linebacker Jack Campbell picked it off. The Hawkeyes turned it into the game-winning field goal with 28 seconds to play.
"The first person that made a catastrophic error was going to lose that football game, and we made two of them. We did everything we possibly could as a football team to put ourselves in position to win, and I think everybody in the stadium, except maybe in the last minute, thought we were going to win that football game," Fleck said." At the end of the day we didn’t, we made a catastrophic error and we can’t do those things. Then we made another one on the next drive. I thought we did everything but win the game."
On Minnesota’s lone touchdown drive, Kaliakmanis was 4-for-4 passing. He finished the first half 6-of-7, and completed one pass in the second half. Fleck doesn’t feel the passing game needs a major change, it just needs to execute. Since a 34-7 win at Michigan State, the Gophers haven’t gotten consistent efforts from Michal Brown-Stephens, Dylan Wright, Daniel Jackson and Brevyn Spann-Ford after Chris Autman-Bell went down injured.
Like last year, only he services academies, New Mexico and New Mexico State pass less than the Gophers.
"We can do it, we just have to do it better," Fleck said.
It can also be argued the Gophers shouldn’t have been in that position to begin with. Kaliakmanis didn’t see Spann-Ford open for a walk-in touchdown at the end of the first half. On the next play, Matthew Trickett missed a chip shot field goal.
Another year of missed opportunities in a rivalry game. But that’s in the past, and Fleck and the Gophers have no choice to move in with the battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe on Saturday. But the bottom line is the Gophers, where they finish 8-4 or 7-5, again came up short in a season where the expectations far exceeded the results.