COLLEGE FOOTBALL: Gophers hope time is now to end Iowa losing streak
Minnesota has lost 7 straight to Iowa and 17 of the last 21
MINNEAPOLIS — P.J. Fleck pulled back the plunger, released it and a silver ball shot up and pinged around inside a “Star Wars” pinball machine placed near the entryway to the coaches’ offices and meeting rooms within the Larson Football Performance Center.
It was an odd place for the old-school arcade game, considering the players’ lounge just down the hall is filled with such games, but the Gophers are always up to something like this.
The Gophers head coach got in a quick game between media interviews on Nov. 7 but didn’t want to talk about what the heck was going on just yet. After the 31-3 win over Northwestern five days later, Fleck shared how a pinball machine metaphor came into play.
“I told our team coming into this week … we are going to have to pull back a little bit,” Fleck told reporters postgame inside Huntington Bank Stadium.
Fleck had cut back on the practice workload by almost 15% during the week, per Catapult tracking numbers, and his team speed shot up come Saturday, with the highest number of players reaching 19 and 20 miles per hour.
The blowout of Northwestern was a prelude to this: Minnesota vs. Iowa in the Floyd of Rosedale rivalry game at 3 p.m. Saturday at Huntington Bank Stadium. In addition to claiming the 100-pound bronze pig trophy, the Gophers (7-3, 4-3 Big Ten) and Hawkeyes (6-4, 4-3) are looking to break a four-way tie for the Big Ten West division lead.
Fleck is 0-5 against the Hawkeyes since 2017; Minnesota has lost seven straight and 17 of the last 21 matchups.
To put his players in the best position, Fleck has been integrating player performance data into how the Gophers have practiced more than ever this season. It’s always been geared to be the most-prepared for right now — when rivalry-game results can determine division champions.
The Hawkeyes have always been in Fleck’s way and have been playing at their best in November for years. Iowa comes into Saturday riding a 13-game winning streak during the month of November, a run that started in 2019 when the Hawkeyes ended Minnesota’s undefeated season.
In November 2020, the Gophers trailed Iowa 35-0 when Fleck called a timeout with 19 seconds left. He was trying to stave off a shutout with a meaningless touchdown, but Ferentz followed it with three straight timeouts.
“We figured we’d take Floyd with us and leave the timeouts here,” Ferentz said after Iowa’s 35-7 victory.
In November 2021, the Gophers’ 27-22 loss in Iowa City was defined by Fleck’s fickleness on fourth downs and its defense allowing three explosive plays. Two were big catches made by Charlie Jones, who transferred to Purdue this season.
“Those three (plays) have been on my mind,” Gophers defensive coordinator Joe Rossi said Wednesday. The most baffling of the three was when Gophers cornerback Coney Durr and defensive end Thomas Rush both hit Keagan Johnson for a short gain, but the Iowa receiver was able to stay on his feet and score from 27 yards out.
“We had two people hit him and slide off of him like (he was) Houdini,” Rossi said.
This year, Iowa’s offense is one of the worst in the nation and its defense among the very best. The Hawkeyes offense has scored only 19 touchdowns and produced 12 plays over 20 yards in 10 games, both among the lowest totals in the country.
But Iowa’s defense has allowed only 14 touchdowns and has scored four defensive TDs of its own. Gophers offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca called it one of the best units he’s seen in years.
Fleck said there is “a balance” between respecting the Hawkeyes defense and playing too cautious.
“They are kind of like one of those plant traps,” Fleck said on his KFXN-FM show Tuesday. “They just stay open, open, open and then the bug just can’t help himself. It goes in and gets the pollen and poof. It just swallows you up, and that is how they win a ton of games.”
But with what’s on the line, now is not the time to pull back — on pinball plungers, pinpoint play-calls or otherwise.
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