It needs to be mentioned that Saturday’s game against Nebraska was not as awful as it looked. The Gophers did eventually lose, 38-14. Yet, in 1983, Minnesota lost to the Cornhuskers 84-13.
Punter Christian Eldred had more punts (11) than Nelson had completions (8) in the loss Saturday.
So, what is there to take away from a blowout loss to Nebraska? Not too much.
The offense sputtered. The defense was overmatched. The special teams did not factor into the game.
Instead of focusing on the struggles on the field this week for Minnesota, there is a larger theme at hand that is worth observing.
The 6-5 Gophers may have lost to a tough opponent in the Cornhuskers, but Minnesota has a lot to cheer about. That includes having the ability to go to a bowl game for the first time since 2009.
Many ‘experts’ saw the Gophers as a probable 4-8 team, unlikely to capture the necessary six wins. Instead, Minnesota rolled past its opponents in non-conference play and was able to squeak two conference victories
Here are five observations on how the Gophers got to make it to the six-win mark:
Secondary Being Primary
It would be tough to say anything about Minnesota this year without mentioning the improvement for the Gopher secondary this season.
There has been a combo of five players that have been major contributors this season in the secondary. It is led by senior Troy Stoudermire. The fifth-year senior out of Dallas leads the team in tackles and has been the vocal leader of the group.
Then, there is Michael Carter. Carter has been a disappointment in much of his Gopher career, yet in his senior season, the cornerback has been able to redeem himself. He has 14 pass breakups on the season along with two interceptions. The safeties trio of Brock Vereen, Cedric Thompson, and Derrick Wells has been consistent every game for Minnesota. They have a combined five interceptions.
A Real Running Back
The last time a Gopher running back had over 800 rushing yards was 2006. College football is run of rushing attacks, but Minnesota has lacked one for seasons.
Finally, Donnell Kirkwood emerged out of the backfield.
The sophomore from Florida has carried the workload. After looking impressive at UNLV, coach Kill relied on Kirkwood more. Gone was the junior college transfer James Gillum and any other running back in the way of Kirkwood. It became Kirkwood’s job to lose. The sophomore has three 100-yard games along with a 99-yard game this season.
Putting Pressure on the Quarterback
Minnesota has 23 sacks this season, including two in Saturday’s defeat. The duo of defensive lineman D.L. Wilhite and RaShede Hageman has been the main component of the defensive line. Both should be getting draft looks after the season.
The seven and a half sacks by Wilhite is the most for a Gopher since Willie VandenSteeg had more several years ago. Minnesota has struggled in the pressuring aspect of the game for the past few years.
The future is now
Although freshman Philip Nelson had his worst game in a Gopher uniform, the future continues to be bright for Minnesota in years to come.
First there was MarQueis Gray. While he did fine under center, he sustained multiple injuries that sidelined him for multiple weeks toward the beginning of the season.
Next there was Max Shortell. The sophomore was ineffective in his reign at quarterback. He constantly overthrew receivers.
Kill had to turn to the true freshman, Nelson. He is 2-3 in his career, but has already seen the field at Camp Randall and, on Saturday, Memorial Stadium.
Nelson has a bright future. He should remain the starter for the Gophers for the next three seasons and will be able to shine in the offensive scheme that Kill’s staff implements.
Burn baby burn
When Kill entered the Twin Cities for the first time, he saw a roster that did not have a ton of talent.
Less than two years later, the coaching staff has brought in a plethora of young talent that has already seen the field as a Gopher. He has burned a lot of freshmen’s redshirts in the process.
The quarterback is a freshman, the running backs are both underclassmen, and the wide receiver corp is full of a crop of freshman and sophomores. There are spots where youth still needs to be interjected including at the linebacker position.
The offense will return all but Gray and tight end John Rabe next season.
A 7-5 or 6-6 season is huge this season, but the youth means that they can still improve in the Twin Cities.