For a few brief seconds in the second quarter of Minnesota’s 40-22 loss against Iowa on Saturday, the 70,397 fans at Kinnick Stadium went quiet as running back Laurence Maroney burst through a pile of bodies and into the end zone.
The silence resulting from an apparent Minnesota touchdown quickly turned into raucous cheering, however, when the crowd realized Maroney no longer had the ball.
Iowa defensive back Bob Sanders stripped Maroney of the ball at the goal line and recovered the fumble for the Hawkeyes, preserving a 17-6 lead and thwarting what proved to be Minnesota’s best chance to get back in the game.
“I was in, I know I was in,” Maroney said afterward. “I thought I had a touchdown, but the ref said the ball was out.”
A score would have cut Iowa’s lead to 17-12 (with the extra point pending) and given the Gophers some desperately needed momentum. Instead, Iowa got the ball back and denied Minnesota a chance to get any kind of rhythm.
“That could have definitely been a momentum shifter for us, but it didn’t go that way,” Minnesota quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq said.
Nothing much went the Gophers’ way in their regular-season finale against the Hawkeyes. Minnesota lost starting running back Marion Barber III to a groin injury early in the game and turned the ball over a season-high five times.
Iowa reeled off 37 consecutive points en route to its 12th straight victory at Kinnick Stadium and retained the rivalry’s Floyd of Rosedale trophy.
Abdul-Khaliq – coming off a shoulder injury against Wisconsin – passed for a career-high 388 yards as Minnesota racked up 563 yards of total offense to Iowa’s 344. But he also fumbled three times and threw an interception as turnovers plagued the Gophers all day.
“You look at the statistics, you wouldn’t think the score of the game was what it was,” Gophers coach Glen Mason said. “Except the two important statistics: The obvious one is score, and the other is turnovers.
“It just seems like we were our own worst enemy out there today.”
Minnesota trailed 40-6 with five minutes remaining in the game before two short touchdown runs by Thomas Tapeh narrowed the final margin.
And as Mason pointed out after the game, it could have been worse, given Iowa’s field position following turnovers.
Minnesota’s defense held the Hawkeyes to field goals three times after the Hawkeyes moved the ball inside the 20-yard line.
“I really thought our defense rose to the occasion a number of times,” Mason said.
Iowa running back Fred Russell was held to just 23 yards on nine carries. But backup Jermelle Lewis broke off big gains in chunks, including a 34-yard touchdown run, and quarterback Nathan Chandler (17-of-28, 210 yards) was effective at finding holes in Minnesota’s secondary.
Sanders – who finished with a game-high 16 tackles and two fumbles forced – led a hard-hitting Iowa defense that gave up yards but made big plays all day.
“We bent a little too much,” outside linebacker Grant Steen said. “They got some yards and some big plays.
“But we did a great job when it got down to crunch time of getting a turnover or just buckling up and stopping them.”
Heading into their season finale against Iowa, the Gophers had a golden opportunity to better their case for an invitation to a New Year’s Day bowl.
Representatives from the Capital One Bowl were again on hand. But after getting blown out in what will be its last performance before bowl committees make their selections, Minnesota now could freefall to the bottom of the respective bowls’ wish lists.
The Gophers are one of seven Big Ten teams that have three or fewer conference losses and could potentially go from playing in Florida to as far down the ladder as the Music City Bowl in Nashville, Tenn., where they beat Arkansas last year.
“It’s tough,” defensive tackle Darrell Reid said. “We still have nine wins. We’re still going to a bowl game. But this one really would have made a big difference.”
Minnesota will sit idle this week as the other 10 teams in the Big Ten complete the final week of the regular season Saturday.