Phil Ervin | 23 hours ago
So this is what it looks like when Minnesota gets behind schedule.
It looks like Tanner Morgan dancing around in a collapsing pocket, getting drilled from behind or throwing an ill-advised ball in crunch time.
It looks like an offensive line that is so good at ground-and-pound but sometimes can’t execute a simple pass protection.
It looks like Illinois beating the Golden Gophers at their own game, getting a lead and then milking the afternoon away at Huntington Bank Stadium.
“That is not our style of football,” Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck said of his team trying to come back from an early 14-0 deficit in a 14-6 loss to Illinois on Saturday.
Simply put, this team isn’t built to come back.
Trailing by 2 touchdowns a quarter in isn’t insurmountable — unless you’ve got a turnover-prone quarterback who isn’t getting protected consistently. Even on Minnesota’s lone score, Morgan was running for his life.
He was sacked 6 times and threw a pair of interceptions — including one on the Gophers’ final possession.
“It just comes down to execution,” Morgan said. “They did a great job, and you have to give them a ton of credit for what they did. They’re a physical team and a very good defense. For us, we just have to execute way better.”
This looked and felt eerily similar to the Bowling Green loss earlier this season. While Illinois is a gritty, scrappy bunch with B1G athletes, Minnesota looked a step slow.
It didn’t help that the Gophers were constantly playing from behind.
Morgan’s 1st interception came with the Gophers driving on their opening possession. Illinois went right down the field and scored, and Minnesota was in a sudden hole.
Then Morgan was sacked on the 2nd drive, leading to 3rd-and-17. Illinois turned the ensuing possession into 7 more points.
And that was pretty much it.
“The consistency,” Fleck said, “was that we were inconsistent.”
To make matters worse, kicker Matthew Trickett missed a 45-yard field goal at the end of the 1st half. Late in the 3rd, Morgan was sacked — again — on 4th-and-6 at the Illinois 22-yard line.
“We can’t stall ourselves on drives,” Morgan said.
On the other side of the ball, Illinois and 1st-year coach Bret Bielema were content to just run it down Minnesota’s throat with Chase Brown (147 yards on 32 carries) and flip the field with effective punting. The Illini attempted just 10 passes.
The Gophers couldn’t counter, tallying a season-low 89 rushing yards.
For all Fleck, who signed a 7-year contract extension this week, has brought to the Twin Cities, his teams seem like they’re always good for a clunker or 2. This was the 2nd after the Bowling Green debacle, and it’s right up there with 2020 Iowa (35-7), 2019 Wisconsin (38-17) and 2018 Maryland (42-13), Nebraska (53-28) and, yes, Illinois (55-31).
With a sole handle on 1st place in the Big Ten West, how could Minnesota have come out flat and never recovered?
“As a team, we know the mission every week,” defensive end Boye Mafe said. “We know what we have to do, the coaches come up with a game plan and they come with everything we need to learn. It is our job to go out and execute.”
That didn’t happen Saturday. And now the West is a mess.
Including Minnesota, 4 teams are atop the division with 2 losses apiece. The Gophers have a tiebreaker over Purdue and games remaining against Iowa and Wisconsin, starting next Saturday in Iowa City.
“This doesn’t change anything for us,” Morgan said. “We’ll get in tomorrow, learn a ton, look at game film and then move on to next week.”
The question is, which Minnesota team will show up?