MINNEAPOLIS – “We did everything except win the football game.”
PJ Fleck and the University of Minnesota football team use Sunday to wipe the slate clean, don their metaphorical leather vests, and learn from the previous day’s results. At his weekly press conference Monday, Fleck reflected on another missed opportunity, or in Saturday’s case, some of it, 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 is returning to Iowa City and Minnesota is out of the Big Ten West race. That’s due in large part to three “catastrophic plays.”
THE FIRST – Mo Ibrahim’s fumbling. The sixth-grader hit the Hawkeyes’ defense with 39 carries for 263 yards and a touchdown in the second quarter, good enough to be named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week. He hammered 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 5:07 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 only his fourth fumble in 824 career carries. It’s nobody’s fault, just a case of bad 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? stain said. “I would have given it to him 45 times if there had been more time . He’s one of the greatest and he can handle it. It was designed perfectly to win the football game and we just couldn’t do it.”
Fleck shared an emotional moment with Ibrahim following the loss, likely Ibrahim’s last home game against the Gophers.
“I just told him how proud I am of him, how much he has done for this program. Never feel ashamed and don’t let anyone tell you that you should be ashamed of anything,” Fleck said. “Never be ashamed of a move. A play can win you a game, but a play cannot cost you a game. There are too many of them, that’s all I kept telling him. He understands.”
THE SECOND – Terell Smith’s aborted interception. Just a few plays after the fumble, Spencer Petras attempted to hit Leshon Williams with a short pass. He bobbled it, and Smith was right there for a game-changing turnover deep in Iowa territory. He couldn’t lock up the football and it fell on the grass.
Iowa finally poked.
THE THIRD – The interception of Athan Kaliakmanis. The Gophers retrieved the ball after that punt and drove it to the Iowa 33-yard line. On the 3rd and 7th, Kaliakmanis tried to cross Lemeke Brockington. All-American safety Riley Moss picked it up and star linebacker Jack Campbell picked it up. The Hawkeyes converted it into the game-winning field goal with 28 seconds remaining.
“The first person to make a catastrophic mistake would lose that football game and we made two of them. We did everything we could as a football team to put ourselves in a position to win and I think everyone in the stadium, except maybe in the last minute, we thought we were going to win that football game,” Fleck said. “At the end of the day we didn’t do it, we made a catastrophic mistake and we can’t do these things. Then we managed another on the next drive. I thought we did everything but win the game.
On Minnesota’s only touchdown drive was Kaliakmani’s 4-for-4 pass. He finished the first half on 6 of 7 and completed a run in the second half. Fleck doesn’t think the passing game needs a big change, it just needs to be executed. Since a 34-7 win at Michigan State, the Gophers have not received a consistent effort from Michal Brown-Stephens, Dylan Wright, Daniel Jackson and Brevyn Spann-Ford after Chris Autman-Bell went down injured.
Like last year, just serving academies, New Mexico and New Mexico State pass less than the Gophers.
“We can do it, we just have to do better,” said Fleck.
It can also be argued that the Gophers shouldn’t have been in that position to begin with. Kaliakmanis didn’t see Spann-Ford open for a walkable touchdown late in the first half. On the next play, Matthew Trickett missed a chip-shot field goal.
Another year of missed opportunities in a rivalry match. But that’s in the past, and Fleck and the Gophers have no choice but to intervene in Saturday’s fight for Paul Bunyan’s Axe. But the bottom line is that the Gophers, where they finish 8-4 or 7-5, fall short again in a season where expectations have far exceeded results.