The Gophers awoke to that college football utopia on Sept. 25: They’d just throttled Michigan State 34-7 in their Big Ten opener, improving to 4-0 after outplaying opponents 183-24 . As of this Sunday afternoon, they would enter the AP Top 25 at No. 21.
It wasn’t just that they were dominant, it was the way the Gophers won. Sure, their three non-conference opponents — New Mexico State, Western Illinois and Colorado — were overwhelmed, but the Gophers were playing with the Spartans, a top-15 team last season.
And quarterback Tanner Morgan, reunited and feeling so good with offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, revived the echoes of his magical 2019 as he set Michigan State on fire in a 23-for-26 pass for 268 yards and three touchdowns. After Chris Autman-Bell was sidelined for the season a week earlier, Morgan made up for the absence by completing passes to 10 different pass catchers.
Two months later, that victory in East Lansing is a distant memory and hope for a Big Ten West Division title is gone. The Gophers travel to Wisconsin for Saturday’s regular-season finals in a bid to secure one final trophy and avoid the humiliation of potentially spending the bowl season in Detroit after their fanbase dreamed of Pasadena.
What the hell happened?
A combination of factors turned what seemed a great season into a “meh” — apart from running back Mohamed Ibrahim’s brilliant season. The 4-0 start was fool’s gold, especially with Michigan State now 5-6 more cheating than impressive. The Gophers’ offense became one-dimensional as Autman-Bell’s absence became a bigger factor than it first seemed. Minnesota’s defense, strong for the most part, faltered at key times. The kicking game had a few bad moments. And some key coaching decisions backfired.
It adds up to a 7-4 aggregate record and a 4-4 Big Ten mark ahead of Saturday’s game at Camp Randall Stadium, where Minnesota will attempt Paul Bunyan’s Ax against Wisconsin (6-5, 4-4) to keep.
“When we look back, there are some things and you’re always going to circle a game or two,” Gophers coach PJ Fleck said, analyzing last week’s 13-10 loss to Iowa. “But none of us wanted it to happen the way it did.”
Things started to go wrong for the Gophers in Michigan State in the third quarter when Ibrahim suffered an ankle injury, spent some time in the medical tent and returned on target with 103 yards and 22 carries. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time, but the injury stopped Ibrahim from playing Purdue the next week.
Blunders versus the Boilermakers
The 20-10 homecoming loss to Purdue on Oct. 1 summed up what went wrong for the Gophers in 2022.
Two plays stood out.
- With the Gophers up fourth and one from their 29-yard line, Fleck tried, but Cole Kramer was stuffed without a win. Purdue conceded that for a field goal and a 10-0 lead.
If a fourth and one try by the Gophers 29 looks familiar, it should too. Fleck made it from that spot in last year’s opener against Ohio State and got a 56-yard run from Ibrahim. He tried again from the 29 against Bowling Green in the fourth game in 2021, but Trey Potts was thrown for a 5-yard loss, resulting in a touchdown in the Falcons’ 14-10 upset.
- The other key game against Purdue came late in the second quarter when the Gophers were down 10-3. Morgan found a wide open Mike Brown-Stephens in the end zone. Instead of a touchdown to equalize, Brown-Stephens slipped the ball between his hands, bounced off his chest and raced into the arms of a Boilermakers defender to intercept it.
The defense falters
After bye week, the Gophers traveled to Illinois to avenge an angry 2021 loss. Instead, the Fighting Illini hit hard early, hitting a TD on their first drive, adding a field goal on their second, and rolling to a 26-14 win in which they defeated Minnesota 472-180 and finished fourth 4- against-4 went. down conversions.
“Points were scored on all four drives,” said Joe Rossi, the Gophers’ defensive coordinator. “If you stop two of them, it’s a different game.”
Morgan suffered from a terrible coming out, going 4-for-12 for 21 yards with an interception before being forced out of the game in the fourth quarter with a concussion.
A week later, the Gophers lost 45-17 at Penn State, with the Nittany Lions burning down the Minnesota defense for two momentum-changing touchdowns.
Running game takes precedence
In the seven games since winning Michigan State, the Gophers have had one touchdown pass. Fleck and Ciarrocca put the load on Ibrahim’s broad shoulders, and the sixth-grader has rushed for 1,524 yards and a national-best 19 touchdowns in 10 games.
“Probably the greatest running back in Minnesota history is in the backfield. Why didn’t you give it to him 39 times?” Fleck asked after Ibrahim had 39 carries for 263 yards against Iowa.
Ibrahim carried 14 times in a 16-game fourth-quarter march against Iowa that would become a drive for the ages. Instead, linebacker Jack Campbell forced a fumble, which the Hawkeyes recovered at their 9-yard line. And on the next possession, as the Gophers tried to pass to convert a third-and-7 from the Iowa 33, safety Riley Moss broke Athan Kaliakmanis’ pass and Campbell intercepted it and set up winning field in the last minute goal before.
“We just have to keep getting better,” said Ciarrocca. “There is nothing scientific [about it].”
Those turnovers, along with Trickett’s missed 34-yard field goal attempt and a defense that gave up big plays early and late on Iowa tight ends, combined to wreck the Gophers.
“There’s a fine line between winning and losing,” said Rossi. “We were on the wrong side.”