Gophers haunted by recent close losses to Hawkeyes

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The degree to which the Iowa Hawkeyes live rent free inside P.J. Fleck’s head is difficult to gauge, but the Gophers’ rival to the south has set up some amount of real estate in Fleck’s bald noggin.

With an 0-6 record against the Hawkeyes, the Gophers football coach can recall a catalog of bad memories, where his Minnesota teams have come up short on an annual basis since 2017. He doesn’t have to go back far to remember the one that sticks with him most.

“Last year, (we) turned the ball over twice in three minutes,” Fleck told the Pioneer Press. “Or three minutes, whatever it was.”

Tied 10-10 at a freezing Huntington Bank Stadium last November, Mo Ibrahim fumbled at the Iowa 13-yard line with five minutes left. After an Iowa punt, Athan Kaliakmanis threw an interception with two minutes remaining. After that second giveaway, the Hawkeyes put together a 42-yard drive and kicked a 21-yard field goal to win 13-10.

“It usually comes down to (taking care of) the ball,” Fleck said. “We’ve had some really close ones, and just have to be able to finish. We’ve also won a lot of games like that. We just haven’t won games against Iowa like that. They deserve credit for that. They were able to finish a lot of the games.”

Fleck isn’t discouraged, though, with another shot at Floyd of Rosedale coming Saturday. The Gophers (3-3, 1-2 Big Ten) are 3 1/2-point underdogs to the No. 24 Hawkeyes (6-1, 3-1) at 2:30 p.m. at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City.

“This is a heck of an opportunity for our kids; I know that,” Fleck said.

The Vegas oddsmakers think the 117th edition of the series will be a lot like last year’s very low-scoring affair.

The 2022 game set a record for lowest over/under point total (31 1/2 points) since that prop bet started to be tracked in the mid-1990s. On Thursday, the 2023 number fell from 32 1/2 points to 31, setting a new low.

The Hawkeyes’ winning ways this seasons look a lot like in previous years: a strong defense and standout special teams units carrying an offense that doesn’t score many, if any, points.

Fleck pointed to the Hawkeyes’ 15-6 win at Wisconsin last Saturday “as exactly who Iowa is,” he said. “They’re very efficient. They don’t turn the ball over. Their special teams are a huge factor in how they win — a huge factor. Their special teams doesn’t get enough credit. And their defense is one of the best defenses in the country consistently. They have a formula, and they do it really well.”

There has been a premium placed on scoring at all on Saturday, but scoring first has been vital in this rivalry. In the previous six games, Iowa has scored first in each one. In the overall eight-game losing skid, six have been one-score games.

Across the last six games, the Gophers have only led in one, and briefly. Matthew Trickett kicked a 31-yard field goal to end the first half in 2021, and it stood for all of three minutes and nine seconds before a Hawkeyes touchdown gave them the lead for good early in the third quarter.

Besides the heartbreak of the 2022 loss, Iowa’s wins in 2019 and 2021 kept the Gophers from winning the Big Ten West and going on to the Big Ten Championship Game. Those defeats aren’t far from Fleck’s recall, either.

With the Gophers coming off a bye week, the coaching staff got a head start on preparing for the Hawkeyes. “Huge,” co-offensive coordinator Greg Harbaugh said of the head start. The U is 6-1 against Iowa with an extra week to prepare, but their lone loss in that category came during this current losing skid, in 2018.

Offensive tackle Quinn Carroll knows about the layers in this rivalry, with his father, Jay, playing tight end for the U in the early 1980s. Jay was a member of a Gophers team that won in Iowa City in 1981. In the 42 years since then, Minnesota has won twice in Kinnick Stadium (1989 and 1999).

Quinn, who grew up in Edina, recalls the last time the U beat Iowa in 2014, with fellow lineman Joe Bjorklund raising the nearly 100-pound pig trophy over his head as the team’s celebration went into the home locker room.

“I’m hoping to do the same thing,” Carroll said.

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