MINNEAPOLIS — The loss of star safety Antoine Winfield Jr. to a foot injury has been a big blow to Minnesota.
All those blown coverages and missed tackles in the secondary might not have been made if Winfield were still playing, but there's an obvious back-end weakness now that Big Ten opponents have been successfully exploiting.
The Gophers (3-4, 0-4) will try again for their first conference victory, when they host Indiana (4-4, 1-4) on Friday night.
"I like our front seven. We stop the run with our front seven," said head coach P.J. Fleck, who is 2-11 in Big Ten play with Minnesota. "But again people are really smart. Not going to have your front seven stop them."
Jordan Howden, one of two true freshmen starting in the secondary, has had his share of struggles in Winfield's absence.
"If he fails, he'll grow. If he succeeds, he'll grow, and this is the only chance we have to make people better," Fleck said, "by experience."
The Gophers have allowed 173 points in their four conference games, with 21 touchdowns by opposing offenses covering an average distance of 32 yards.
"I take a lot of responsibility," senior linebacker Blake Cashman said. "I know everyone on the defense feels the same way, because it's not just one guy or one position group. It's all of us."
Here are some key angles to follow around the game:
LETTING GO: After opening the season with three straight wins, the Hoosiers have lost four of their last five games with the lone victory coming against languishing Rutgers. Last week in a 33-28 defeat by Penn State, the offensive line self-destructed with six holding calls. That's atypical for an experienced group that has created the foundation for one of the conference's most productive offenses, and head coach Tom Allen said he doesn't expect a repeat this week.
"We had first downs that were affected by those calls. They were very costly," Allen said. "We've got to move our feet, got to have better technique."
BACKUP PLAN: Peyton Ramsey has started all eight games this season at quarterback for Indiana, but after a two-interception performance two weeks ago in a 42-16 loss at home to Iowa, Allen initiated a plan to work in true freshman Michael Penix Jr.
After splitting time with Ramsey against Penn State, Penix tore his ACL. Another true freshman, Reese Taylor, has been elevated to backup status.
"We'll continue to utilize him and do whatever we have to do to win football games," Allen said.
TURN OFF THE FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS: Allen played for his father at New Castle High School in Indiana, before beginning his own coaching career on the high school circuit. Naturally, Allen was a critic of the Big Ten's decision to schedule a TV-friendly six-year package of six Friday night games per season through 2022. This is the first time for both the Hoosiers and Gophers. In Minnesota, the high school playoffs have begun and the majority of games this weekend will be on Saturday.
"I believe Friday nights are for high school football, and I stand by that very strongly," Allen said. "It's not my decision. We'll go play, be ready to play wherever we're asked to play, whether it's Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. I just like to protect that for, and no matter what state it's in, those guys to be able to enjoy that night of the week."
SHORTENED WEEK: Gophers quarterback Zack Annexstad, already hampered by an ankle injury suffered in the second game of the season, was examined at a hospital for a midsection injury at Nebraska last week. Tanner Morgan played well in relief and could start against Indiana, with one fewer day of healing for Annexstad.
"It can take some time to get healed, and when Tanner got in there opened up a little bit more," Fleck said. "You can see what we're missing with that."
SCHEDULE QUIRK: This will be Indiana's first visit to TCF Bank Stadium, where the Gophers are playing their 10th season. The Hoosiers played at the Metrodome in 2008, but as a result of the league's expansion to 14 teams and the two programs being placed in opposite divisions they have only faced the Gophers once since then. That was a 42-39 victory by Minnesota at Indiana on Nov. 2, 2013.