MINNEAPOLIS - The University of Minnesota football team doesn’t control its own destiny to win the Big Ten West next week, but they’ve at least given themselves a chance.
The Gophers ended a two-game losing streak Saturday, and responded from a painful loss at Iowa with a dominating 35-14 win over Indiana at Memorial Stadium. The Gophers improve to 7-4 on the season, 5-3 in the Big Ten and for the second time in three years, are at least in the Big Ten West title conversation going into the regular season finale.
Iowa beat Illinois 33-23, and Wisconsin held off Nebraska 35-28 on Saturday. It’s a bit complicated, but the Gophers’ path to Indianapolis to play for a Big Ten title involves beating rival Wisconsin next week, Iowa losing to Nebraska and Purdue beating Indiana.
"Seven days left and we have a chance to be in it. We have to take care of our business. If we lose next week, it doesn’t matter anyway. We win, something has to happen outside of our control," Gophers coach PJ Fleck said after the win. "We’re learning that when you control your own destiny, it works out better for you."
As for Saturday’s win, the Gophers dominated after getting off to a sluggish start. A 16-play drive that took more than eight minutes ended with Ky Thomas getting stuffed on 4th-and-1 at the Indiana 8-yard line. The Hoosiers answered with a 14-play, 92-yard drive that ended with Donaven McCulley scoring from 11 yards out to give Indiana the 7-0 lead.
After that, the Gophers scored 35 straight points before Indiana got a late, meaningless touchdown. Tanner Morgan finished 14-of-20 passing for 196 yards and two touchdowns, both to Chris Autman-Bell. Ky Thomas led the Gophers’ ground game with 26 carries for 105 yards and two touchdowns. Mar’Keise Irving added 14 carries for 70 yards and a touchdown.
The Gophers had 195 yards on the ground, and Morgan’s 196 through the air. Morgan, who has had an up and down season, got the game ball in the team's locker room celebration after the win.
"I can’t say enough about that kid’s resolve. A lot of people are really hard on him, and he’s the all-time winningest quarterback in the history of our program," Fleck said.
Minnesota’s defense, after Indiana scored on a 92-yard drive on its opening possession, limited the Hoosiers to 126 total yards the rest of the game, and no points until a meaningless touchdown with 3:13 to play and the game decided. The Gophers forced five punts, a turnover on downs and intercepted McCulley twice. Nyles Pinckney also got the lone Minnesota sack of the day on McCulley. The game turned late in the first half, when the Gophers scored 14 points in the final minute to lead 21-7 at the break.
Thomas’s second score of the day, from 1-yard out with 46 seconds left in the half, gave Minnesota a 14-7 lead. Tyler Nubin then intercepted McCulley, whose intended receiver ran out of bounds on the play. With 23 seconds left in the half and two timeouts, Fleck got aggressive in the passing game with three straight completions. Morgan hit Autman-Bell on a fade route, with a one-handed catch by Autman-Bell, for a 14-yard score and 21-7 lead at the half.
"Everybody from the outside is like ‘Ok, is he going to kick a field goal? Is he going to be conservative or is he going to be aggressive?’ Those are the two words, conservative and aggressive. Well there’s conservative, aggressive and stupid. I think there’s three options that you have there, but it all depends on what the defense is doing," Fleck said. "One-on-one coverage with Crab, a great pitch and catch by Tanner. I thought Chris played really big today."
Morgan hit Autman-Bell for a 10-yard touchdown to give the Gophers a 28-7 lead with 2:28 left in the third quarter. Irving scored from three yards out with 3:41 to play to give the Gophers a 35-7 lead. The offense found rhythm after a sluggish first quarter, and the defense dominated after giving up an early touchdown.
The Gophers host Wisconsin next Saturday, with a Big Ten West title potentially on the line for both teams. Saturday was the bounce back Minnesota needed after dominating Iowa on the stat sheet last week, but leaving Kinnick Stadium with a loss.
"I’m really proud of our players’ resolve, how they responded the last few weeks. Last week was a really emotional game and sometimes you just don’t know what you’re going to get. We needed to be a really close-knit family today, and I saw that," Fleck said.