IOWA CITY — There were no apologies. None.
P.J. Fleck cost his Minnesota football team 15 yards when he rather inexplicably sprinted onto the playing field at Kinnick Stadium late in the third quarter of Iowa’s 23-19 victory and was assessed a penalty. The coach got to the hashmarks before officials were able to restrain and temporary send him back to the sideline.
Just a bizarre scene all around.
Minnesota receiver Tyler Johnson had just flat-out dropped a fourth-down pass inside the 5-yard line that would have been a touchdown that brought the Gophers into a 20-20 tie (assuming the extra point was made). Iowa defensive back Dane Belton smacked Johnson after the drop, sending multiple flags flying, Johnson to the ground in the end zone, and Fleck running toward him.
Belton was given a personal foul for a late hit, Fleck an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Both were deadball fouls, meaning Iowa would have been given the football, no matter what.
“I’d do it all over again,” Fleck said. “I was told I ran onto the field too fast. I get that. But I didn’t know when there was a red light and a green light for me to go onto the field. The whistle blew, the play is over, my player is laying motionless on the ground. I was on the staff that watched Eric LeGrand lay motionless after breaking his neck at Rutgers (in a 2010 game). We as coaches get criticized when we don’t show enough compassion to somebody that’s hurt in this game in 2019.”
“Coach Fleck was just being a great coach right there,” said Johnson, who had a huge game with nine catches for 170 yards and a TD. “He cares a lot about all of us players. When something like that happens, he’s usually the first one to come and check up on somebody. Coach Fleck was just doing his job.”
Iowa fans frothed again at the frenetic Fleck in the final minutes of the game. Minnesota had no timeouts remaining and the ball at its 20 with 1:52 left, when Iowa sacked fantastic Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan on back-to-back plays.
The second one, by A.J. Epenesa, pushed the ball back to the 9-yard line and dinged Morgan physically. TV cameras caught Fleck yelling at his QB to stay down on the field after the hit, which he did, causing officials to temporarily stop the clock to check on him.
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Hawkeye fans howled at what they perceived to be shenanigans. Morgan was replaced by Cole Kramer for Minnesota’s final two plays: a long incompletion and a Riley Moss interception near midfield.
“We don’t have any timeouts, he’s woozy and wobbly, right?” Fleck said. “There is nobody that stops the game. I can’t run onto the field and pull him off the field.
“He’s so tough, he’s so gutsy. He’s such a winner. I pulled him off, and he’s saying ‘Let’s go back in there. Let’s go back in there.’ I’m like ‘I’m not putting you back in, man.’ I looked right at him. There’s no way I’m going to send that kid back onto the field.”
Fleck said he told his team it should consider its first loss of the season to be a blip. Minnesota still controls its own destiny when it comes to winning the Big Ten Conference’s West Division.
It has a one-game lead on Wisconsin with two to go: a road game at Northwestern next week and what could very well be a winner-take-all home game in two weeks against the Badgers.
“I told my players it’s one game. We’re 0-1 in the Iowa season. Everything is still sitting right in front of us,” Fleck said. “Learn from this, put our oar back into water and row.”
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