For a fan base that chants, “Who hates Iowa?” We hate Iowa!” The final three weeks of the Big Ten regular season should be pretty straightforward.
With a 27-26 home loss to Illinois on Saturday, the Gophers fell to 3-3 in Big Ten play. Meanwhile, Iowa improved to 4-2 with a 10-7 win over Northwestern at Wrigley Field.
After being in pole position, the Gophers now likely need to lose at least two of their last three games against the first-place Hawkeyes for Minnesota to win the Big Ten West Division.
The Gophers also must beat Purdue (1-5) on Saturday in West Lafayette, Ind., and likely beat Wisconsin (3-3) in the regular-season finale at home on Nov. 25. In between, the U is a big underdog against No. 1 Ohio State (6-0) on Nov. 18.
The Hawkeyes’ last three games are Rutgers (3-3), Illinois (2-4) and Nebraska (3-3). Given their ponderous attack, dropping two of them is well within the realm of possibility.
If the Gophers and Hawkeyes finish atop the West with 5-4 conference records, Minnesota would hold the head-to-head tiebreaker and win the division.
On the other hand, the Gophers don’t inspire much confidence in what they can accomplish over the last three games. Losing a five-point lead in the final minute against Illinois on Saturday — in addition to squandering a 21-point lead in an eventual overtime loss to Northwestern in September — will have such damaging effects.
Gophers coach PJ Fleck said his program went through a grieving process after a 37-34 loss to Northwestern six weeks ago. He was asked Saturday if they would mourn again.
“We put a lot of work into it; There’s always sadness,” Fleck said after the U’s Salute to Service game. “First of all, this isn’t about life and death. We paid tribute to our servicemen and women. This (game) is not about life and death. These people make the ultimate choice and the ultimate sacrifices.
“But when you talk about grief, yes, when you lose games, there is a period of grief,” Fleck continued. “…You put in a whole week of work and lose by a point and have chances to win on both sides. “We just didn’t manage to do that.”
Senior captain Tyler Nubin was at the center of Illinois’ game-winning 46-yard touchdown connection from backup quarterback John Paddock to standout receiver Isaiah Williams with 50 seconds left. After the game he was asked how he would continue and try to lead the team forward.
“Definitely staying together and just being more detailed and focused throughout the week,” Nubin said. “I think it happens every week but it has increased now because we only have three left and we need to get them. So everything has to go up.”