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Minnesota Football: Gopher Defense Struggles in 35-40 Loss to Iowa

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Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Golden Gophers walked into Kinnick Stadium with the Floyd of Rosedale, but walked out empty-handed after the Iowa Hawkeyes took possession of the prized pig. So how did this happen?

In the first half, the Hawkeyes were able to put points on the boards on each of their four offensive possessions, including touchdown drives of 91, 68, and 97 yards. Throw in a field goal and Iowa was able to head into a halftime with a 24-14 lead over the Gophers. Minnesota struggled to get off the field on defense, as the Hawkeyes were 7-of-8 on third down in the first half. Pressuring Iowa quarterback CJ Beathard was made all the more difficult by the fact that he seemed to have regained his mobility in spite of a reported groin injury, scrambling for a 26-yard gain late in the second quarter to set up a LeShun Daniels touchdown. Daniels also had a monster first half against a depleted Gopher defense, rushing for 90 yards on 10 attempts with 2 touchdowns before halftime.

Minnesota was able to keep pace with Iowa on offense early on. The Gophers punted on their first drive, but scored on their next possession to tie the game at 7-7 with a 2-yard touchdown run from Mitch Leidner. That touchdown was set up by a 37-yard pass from Leidner to KJ Maye. Iowa would regain the lead with a 1-yard touchdown run from Beathard on their next drive, but the Gophers responded with a 75-yard touchdown drive of their own. Leidner was able to convert two key third downs with long passes to Brandon Lingen and Drew Wolitarsky before tossing a beautiful 40-yard touchdown pass to Lingen on a wheel route that fooled the entire Hawkeye defense.

Minnesota was able to limit Iowa to a field goal and a 17-14 lead on their next possession, but lost their momentum on offense after an intentional grounding penalty against Leidner effectively killed the ensuing drive. Peter Mortell and the punt team would pin the Hawkeyes on their own 3-yard line, but poor tackling and a lack of penalties allowed Iowa to drive down the field to take a 10-point lead at the break.

The Gopher defense was able to force a three-and-out to start the second half, but more penalties from everyone's favorite officiating crew kept the Gophers from getting anything going on offense. Iowa would extend their lead to 27-14 with a field goal from Marshall Koehn before Leidner led a 75-yard march down the field to cut the deficit to 27-21 with a 1-yard touchdown run from Rodrick Williams. But a 58-yard kickoff return from Desmond King set up Iowa with near perfect field position at the Minnesota 37, allowing them to score four plays later on a 1-yard touchdown run from Beathard.

Three punts and one missed field goal for Iowa later, the Gophers made things interesting with a halfback pass from Shannon Brooks to Drew Wolitarsky for a 42-yard touchdown, cutting the Iowa lead to 28-33. The Hawkeyes would respond by trying to grind out the clock on a drive that saw them convert two third downs with quarterback sneaks, culminating in a back-breaking 51-yard touchdown run from Daniels. But Minnesota wasn't done yet, marching down the field on six plays to score again on a 3-yard touchdown run by Brooks. The ensuing onside kick attempt would fail and the Hawkeyes held on for a 40-35 win to re-claim Floyd and improve to 10-0.

The officiating was atrocious. Minnesota was called for 12 penalties, while Iowa had all of 4. Not all of the penalties against the Gophers were pulled out of thin air, but the amount of no-calls against the Hawkeyes was ridiculous. This one, in particular, was a gem that happened to take place on Daniels' last touchdown run. The Gophers' tackling was poor across the board, and Iowa was able to roll up 272 rushing yards against a Minnesota defensive line missing both of its starting defensive tackles, but the lopsided officiating made their shortcomings all the more difficult to overcome.

But the game is over. Time to move on.

The last three weeks, the Gophers have had to endure a brutal stretch of three Top 25 opponents, including road games against two teams ranked in the Top 10. In each of those three games, the Gophers were within striking distance in the 4th Quarter:
- Michigan: Down 3 with :19 left in the game and the ball on the Wolverines' 1-yard line.
- Ohio State: Down 7 with 2:10 left in the game.
- Iowa: Down 5 with 1:16 left in the game.

Impressive, right? Except the Gophers went 0-3 in those games and are now 4-6 overall, with must-win games coming up against Illinois and Wisconsin if Minnesota intends to reach a bowl game. That is the reality. I'm not one to settle for moral victories. I hate losing more than I like winning. "Losing close" can soften the blow somewhat, but being so close to victory and coming up short can also be maddening. Minnesota has been competitive against TCU, Michigan, Ohio State, and Iowa, but has also been smothered by Northwestern and run off the field by Nebraska. The Gophers aren't a bad team, but they're also not a good team either. They're more like an enigma.

The current Gopher defense is a shadow of its former self, with three starters (Damarius Travis, Steven Richardson, Scott Ekpe) and three key contributors (Jalen Myrick, Craig James, Ace Rogers) all out at the moment. Not to mention starters like Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Cody Poock who are playing through injuries -- and I'm sure there are more than we know about. The sad truth is that this is nowhere near the same defense that held TCU's high-powered offense to 2 touchdowns in the season opener. Even Tracy Claeys is resigned to the fact that his defense is going to be a liability:

But while the defense has struggled, the offense appears to have figured things out. The offensive line was effective in pass protection for the most part against the Hawkeyes and serviceable in run blocking, but Mitch Leidner deserves a lot of credit. He has taken a huge step forward since the disastrous performance against Northwestern, with KJ Maye and Brandon Lingen emerging as his go-to threats in the passing game. The running back position has been banged up at times and handicapped by a patchwork offensive line, but we've seen flashes of greatness from both Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks. Matt Limegrover also appears to have opened up the playbook, with noticeable improvements in his playcalling the last three weeks.

The fact that the script has been flipped from the beginning of the season -- when the defense was having to make up for the lack of offense -- is just par for the course for this season. The play of Minnesota this year can be summed up in one word: Inconsistent. And that is in large part because of injuries. No wants to use it as an excuse, but when you're as banged up as this team has been, it is amazing that we're even able to field a competitive team, especially considering the brutal schedule of opponents. It is frustrating to think of what this team could have accomplished this season had it been able to keep more players healthy all year long. But enough woulda, coulda, shoulda -- we have to make due with the team we have now.

And you know what? I love this team. I've noticed that no one ever says that when their team is losing, but I love this team. Do I love losing? No, absolutely not. It frustrates me to no end that this team hasn't been able to translate their effort into more wins, but I love the effort, preparation, and focus I see out of this team week in and week out. The way they've been playing amidst a lost season -- one that also saw their head coach step down mid-season due to health reasons -- speaks volumes about the character of this team. I know for sure I'm going to miss a lot of the seniors next year.

The good news is that the Gophers have plenty left to play for. Win the next two games and they're headed to a bowl game with a record of 6-6. Even with a back-breaking loss to Illinois next Saturday, Minnesota won't lack motivation against Wisconsin the following week, with a shot at Paul Bunyan's Axe on Senior Night at TCF Bank Stadium. There are two weeks left in the regular season, but the season is far from over. Let's see what the Gophers have left in the tank.