Gophers still learning how to close games

Minnesota relinquished a 22-point lead against Indiana but scored in the final minutes to win 38-31.

Linebacker Blake Cashman calls to his teammates on Saturday, Oct. 20 at Memorial Stadium. Nebraska defeated the Gophers with a final score of 53-28.

Jack Rodgers

Linebacker Blake Cashman calls to his teammates on Saturday, Oct. 20 at Memorial Stadium. Nebraska defeated the Gophers with a final score of 53-28.

Paul Hodowanic

On Friday night against Indiana, the Gophers found themselves in uncharted territory this season.

With a 21-9 lead at halftime, they were in the lead after two quarters for the first time since their last non-conference game against Miami (OH). It was also just the second time they had a lead in a conference game this season, the first coming in the second quarter against Ohio State.

Through three quarters, the Gophers held a 31-9 lead and looked to be on their way to a convincing win — one that would silence many critics, end their four-game losing streak and be their first Big Ten win of the season.

“I kept reminding them that we were up big, we were kicking butt, we were doing a great job. We just have to continue to go back to what we were doing before,” said senior linebacker Blake Cashman. “We had a very basic game plan and I said, ‘don’t make it complicated out there, look at your key, know your rule and play football.'”

However, Indiana kept fighting. The Hoosiers scored 22 unanswered points in a span of nine minutes and 27 seconds in the fourth quarter, fueled by two Minnesota fumbles and an interception.

The Gophers responded with a 67-yard touchdown reception by Rashod Bateman with 1:34 remaining in the game. On Indiana’s first offensive play following the touchdown, Carter Coughlin strip sacked Indiana quarterback Peyton Ramsey, securing the win for the Gophers in a much closer game than the team would’ve liked.

While Indiana was mounting their comeback, upperclassmen leaders on both sides of the ball for the Gophers tried to keep their team positive and confident.

“[I told them] keep playing football, there’s a lot of football left, anything can happen,” said junior wide receiver Tyler Johnson. “They went out there and kept playing no matter what and the rest is history.”

Now, the Gophers are tasked with learning from the last game’s near collapse and applying it to the rest of their season. The coaching staff acknowledged that with an inexperienced, youthful team, it can be tough in situations like the Indiana game.

“We talk about starting fast, accelerating in the middle and finish[ing] strong. It’s easier to understand that when you’re very mature and experienced group because they’ve been through a lot of things … you’ve got to be able to withdraw from your past at times to create your future,” said head coach P.J. Fleck. “We started fast, we accelerated middle on all three phases and we finished, but we didn’t finish strong.”

The Gophers currently sit at 4-4 on the season in need of two wins in their final four games to become bowl-eligible.

In their final four weeks the Gophers will travel to Illinois, return home for two games against Purdue and Northwestern and then take on Wisconsin away from TCF Bank Stadium in their final game.

The Gophers are 9.5-point favorites on the road against the Illini this week. The team knows this is a prime opportunity to get one of those wins, with Illinois struggling on the year with a 3-5 record and defense that ranks at the bottom of the Big Ten.

Purdue has turned it on lately, beating Ohio State last week, Northwestern is now 5-1 in conference and leading the Big Ten West, and Wisconsin remains a hurdle that the Gophers have struggled to climb over. The Gophers, however, remain confident in their ability to reach their final goal.

“You got to keep guys focused on what’s important and that is, we want to finish out these next four games with all wins and go to a bowl game and send out seniors out the right way,” Cashman said.