AJ Epenesa

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No. 20 Iowa hands No. 8 Minnesota first loss of the season

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It has been said hopes and dreams can go to Kinnick Stadium and never walk out. While that may be a bit of an overstatement for this particular situation, Kinnick Stadium did put bruise up another Big Ten championship and College Football Playoff hopeful’s season. No. 20 Iowa (7-3, 4-3 Big Ten) was the first team to hand No. 8 Minnesota (9-1, 6-1 Big Ten) a loss this season with a 23-19 victory Saturday in Iowa City.

Iowa led Minnesota 20-6 at halftime but managed just one field goal in the fourth quarter to extend its lead to 10 points midway through the quarter. The field goal by Keith Duncan came at the end of a 10-play drive that killed off a little more than four minutes of precious game time. Minnesota’s chance to make things a one-possession game on the ensuing drive looked good when Rodney Smith crossed the goal line late in the fourth quarter, but a missed extra-point attempt by Brock Walker kept things just out of reach for the Gophers.

It wasn’t for lack of effort, however. Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan passed for 368 yards and a touchdown, with Tyler Johnson hauling in nine passes for 170 yards. Rashod Bateman had six catches for 98 yards. Iowa’s Nate Stanley passed for 173 yards and two touchdowns in the win. AJ Epenesa led a ferocious defensive attack for Iowa that gave up some plays in the second half but slammed the door shut on the Gophers when it mattered the most. Epenesa had a game that reminded those watching just why he is one of the top defensive linemen in the nation.

In the grand scheme of things, Minnesota still has a path to its first Big Ten championship game. And if Minnesota does reach the championship game with just one loss, a victory in the conference championship game (against Ohio State or Penn State) would make for a strong case at the end of the season worth discussing for the College Football Playoff. But for now, PJ Fleck and his program must deal with rebounding after their first loss since Nov. 17, 2018 (Northwestern, 24-14).

Iowa will be home again next week to face Illinois. The Illini have already clinched bowl eligibility, so next week’s game could be more about jockeying for bowl position in the Big Ten bowl pool with neither team in the running for the division. Minnesota will play at Northwestern next week for a great opportunity for a rebound win. The Wildcats have won just two games all season, with their second coming earlier in the day with a blowout of UMass.

Minnesota still owns a one-game lead in the division ahead of Wisconsin. It is possible the division championship will be on the line in the regular-season finale between Minnesota and Wisconsin, a game won by the Gophers last season.