COLLEGE FOOTBALL: Gophers hope now is the time to end Iowa’s losing streak – InForum

MINNEAPOLIS — PJ Fleck pulled back the plunger, released it and a silver ball shot up and pinged around a “Star Wars” pinball machine that was parked near the entrance to the coaches’ offices and briefing rooms at the Larson Football Performance Center .

It was an odd place for the old-school arcade game, considering the player lounge just down the hall is filled with games like this, but the Gophers always come up with something like this.

The Gophers head coach got caught in a fast game between media interviews on Nov. 7, but didn’t want to talk about what the heck was going on just yet. After beating Northwestern 31-3 five days later, Fleck explained how a pinball metaphor came into play.

“I told our team we’re coming this week…we’ve got to pull back a little bit,” Fleck told reporters after the game at Huntington Bank Stadium.

Fleck had reduced the training load by almost 15% during the week, according to Catapult tracking numbers, and his team’s speed skyrocketed next Saturday, with the highest number of players hitting 19 and 20 mph.

The Northwest’s blowout was a prelude to this: Minnesota vs. Iowa in the Floyd of Rosedale rivalry game Saturday at 3 p.m. at Huntington Bank Stadium. The Gophers (7-3, 4-3 Big Ten) and Hawkeyes (6-4, 4-3) not only want to win the 100-pound bronze hog trophy, but also a four-way tie for the Big Ten West break division lead.

Fleck has been 5-0 down against the Hawkeyes since 2017; Minnesota has lost seven straight games and 17 of their last 21 matchups.

To put his players in the best position, Fleck has integrated player performance data into the Gophers’ training more than ever this season. It has always been geared towards being the best prepared right now – when the results of rivalry matches can determine division champions.

Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan (2) falls onto the field during the second quarter against Iowa on November 13, 2020 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan (2) falls onto the field during the second quarter against Iowa on November 13, 2020 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

Hannah Foslien / TNS

The Hawkeyes have always stood in Fleck’s way and have been playing their best in November for years. Iowa starts Saturday on a 13-game winning streak in November, a streak that began in 2019 when the Hawkeyes ended Minnesota’s undefeated season.

In November 2020, the Gophers were 35-0 behind Iowa when Fleck called for a timeout with 19 seconds left. He attempted to parry a shutout with a meaningless touchdown, but Ferentz followed it up with three straight timeouts.

“We thought we’d take Floyd and leave the time-outs here,” Ferentz said after Iowa’s 35-7 win.

In November 2021, the Gophers’ 27-22 loss in Iowa City was defined by Fleck’s fickleness on fourth downs and his defense that allowed for three explosive games. Two were big catches from Charlie Jones, who joined Purdue that season.

“Those three (games) kept me busy,” Gophers defensive coordinator Joe Rossi said Wednesday. The most confounding of the three was when Gophers cornerback Coney Durr and defensive end Thomas Rush both hit Keagan Johnson for a short win, but the Iowa receiver was able to stay on his feet and score from 27 yards.

“We had two guys hitting him and sliding off him like (he was) Houdini,” Rossi said.

This year, Iowa’s offense is one of the worst in the nation and its defense is among the best. The Hawkeyes offense has hauled just 19 touchdowns and produced 12 plays for 20 yards in 10 games, both among the lowest totals in the country.

But the Iowa defense has only conceded 14 touchdowns and posted four defensive TDs of their own. Gophers offense coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca called it one of the best units he’s seen in years.

Iowa's Jack Koerner (28) celebrates a blocked field goal against Minnesota at TCF Bank Stadium on November 13, 2020 in Minneapolis.
Iowa’s Jack Koerner (28) celebrates a blocked field goal against Minnesota at TCF Bank Stadium on November 13, 2020 in Minneapolis.

Hannah Foslien / TNS

Fleck said there’s “a balance” between respecting the Hawkeyes defense and playing too cautiously.

“They’re kind of like one of those plant traps,” Fleck said on his KFXN-FM show Tuesday. “You just stay open, open, open and then the beetle just can’t do anything else. It goes in and gets pollen and puff. It just swallows you up and they win a lot of games that way.”

But with what’s at stake, now isn’t the time to back down — on pinball plungers, pinpoint play calls, or anything else.

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