Sandell: Loss to Iowa could serve as a needed wake-up call for Gophers
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IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Gophers coach Jerry Kill was not happy, but the stewing demeanor that often overtook him after losses a year ago didn't show itself.
One wouldn't have been able to fault Kill for coming off as irritable or even a bit angry after watching his team fold in upon itself for the first time this season in a humbling 31-13 thrashing by Iowa Saturday afternoon at Kinnick Stadium.
The hype machine surrounding the Gophers' unexpected four-game undefeated stint had grown in scope in the last week in anticipation of their Big Ten opener.
Suddenly, the Gophers were being noticed.
Despite being pegged as seven-point underdogs, momentum appeared to favor the 'U' to reclaim the bronzed pig, Floyd of Rosedale, trophy for a third straight year against Iowa -- a team that had lost its identity in a rocky 2-2 start to the season.
Instead, Iowa gave the Gophers a heavy-handed reality check.
Defensive flaws that had been overshadowed in the first four weeks by strong performances on the defensive line and in the secondary were rampantly exposed. Fullback Mark Weisman and the Hawkeyes capitalized on blown assignments and missed tackles up front, tallying 182 rushing yards.
Stops couldn't be found when Iowa plowed its way to three straight touchdowns in a crippling game-changing stretch in the second quarter.
The Gophers' offense failed repeatedly to provide a buffer. Sophomore quarterback Max Shortell threw three interceptions and couldn't stay in-tuned with his receivers. Drive after drive stalled in three to five plays until the Gophers found a small hint of stability in the second half.
"(The offense) gets back on the field and its three-and-out, and then your defense is back out there and your wheels are spinning and you get a little tired. You can't get things shut off," Kill calmly noted. You've got to make a play to break momentum and we did not make a play."
However, despite his team's readily apparent miscues, Kill did not exude disappointment.
It was if he saw the defeat as an unpleasant, but needed wake-up call. No coach would prefer a loss, but Kill seemed to have already, less than 30 minutes after exiting the field, sensed the benefit Saturday's end result could have.
For at least the next several weeks, the Gophers will be free of the building hype and the high expectations that had come with each victory.
The Gophers have plenty of weaknesses. That was known before Iowa's dismantling. But now the team has glaring proof of what can and will happen if those problem areas aren't addressed.
It's the type of setting Kill thrives on. With a bye week to awaiting them, Kill has an opportunity to fully dissect what went wrong in Iowa City and attempt to prevent another dramatic letdown.
"We'll go back to the fundamentals. That's what we did after the bye week a year ago and we ended up being a better football team after the off-week," Kill said. "Hopefully we can continue to do that and keep their focus and keep moving forward."
Lack of solidified depth has become more of a concern with a series of nagging injuries throughout the squad, including severe ankle sprains that kept starting quarterback MarQueis Gray and left guard Tommy Olson sidelined on Saturday.
The issues go beyond simply a lack of depth. Deficiencies in their rush defense and ability to capitalize on opportunities offensively cost the Gophers against Iowa. Shortell couldn't get into a rhythm and the offense went with him.
The positives the Gophers have expressed to this point in the season haven't evaporated.
A year ago, a loss like the one that transpired in front of the soldout Kinnick Stadium crowd would be enough to derail the team for several weeks.
This season, however, Kill's team has started to a show a layer of newfound resiliency. It's yet to be seen if that attitude can carry through when the Gophers resume their season with a homecoming match-up against Northwestern on Oct. 13, but the players appear undeterred.
"The Pig is a big deal. This rivalry is a big deal, but we've got a lot left to play for," senior linebacker Mike Rallis said. "We have more than half our season left. We'll go home and get it fixed ... We've faced harder adversity than this. We'll be alright."
Saturday was a reminder of where the Gophers are in Kill's rebuild attempt. They are not a team built for an improbable run to finish among the top-five in the conference. They are a team with the capability to be competitive in the Big Ten, but not without a share of letdowns. Saturday was a reminder that a six to seven-win season and bowl bid would be marked as a notable success.
In the meantime, Kill isn't allowing himself to be overloaded by what went wrong as he expressed with glimpses of his matter-of-fact smile after the game.
"I'm going to find out who's really, really invested and really understands how to fight back and how to move on to the next week," Kill said. "That's what you have to do. You have to be consistent with the kids and I think we have been. I think they'll bounce back."