The Gophers made it back to a bowl game for the second consecutive year under Jerry Kill, losing to Syracuse 21-17 in the Texas Bowl to finish the season with an 8-5 record. But despite the disappointing loss to the Orange, it was still an impressive season overall for the Gophers, one in which they took another step forward under the third year head coach.
The positive: the Gophers found an identity on offense, something they had been lacking since Glen Mason was relieved of his duties after the 2006 season. Now, they’re a physical, downhill running team. They had their first 1,000 yard rushing season since the aforementioned 2006 season with David Cobb rushing for 1,202 yards this year. Leading the way for Cobb was the offensive live, which has an identity as a tough and physical group.
The passing game, however, left a lot to be desired to say the least. Outside of a good four game stretch from Philip Nelson during the Gophers’ Big Ten winning streak, the passing offense stunk.
Tight end Maxx Williams and receivers Donovahn Jones, and Drew Wolitarsky — all freshman — showed glimpses of a bright future. However, the growing pains were noticeable and unless they can get more consistent play from the quarterback position next year, look for the same problems on offense.
The defense got better as the season progressed. The linebackers, a question mark heading into the season, became a position of strength. In addition, the Gophers had a pass rush with Ra’Shede Hageman and Theiren Cockran and a deep secondary anchored by veteran and Mr. Do-Everything Brock Vereen (or as Defensive Coordinator Tracy Claeys likes to call him: “Mr. Fix It”). The Gophers finished fifth in scoring defense at 22.2 points per game and seventh in the league in total defense at 373.2 yards per game. They also held Michigan State to their lowest point total of the Big Ten season and Wisconsin to their lowest scoring output of the entire season.
Despite the loss of cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun to a season ending knee injury early on the Gophers recovered nicely with a deep rotation at that position with Derrick Wells, Brock Vereen, Martez Shabazz, Eric Murray, and Jeremy Baltazar. All of those players helped the cornerback position become the strength of the defense. The Gophers finished fifth in the Big Ten in pass defense at 215.1 yards per game.
The coverage teams were exemplary, not allowing a punt or a kick return touchdown all season, meanwhile Marcus Jones was one of the better return men in the conference. Peter Mortell finished third in the conference in punting with an average at 43.3 yards per game. Chris Hawthorne finished fourth in the conference in field goal percentage at 77.8 percent, connecting on 14-of-18 kicks. Just a solid all around year for the special teams.
The Gophers improved from last year: the offensive found an identity, the defense and special teams were very good, but the Gophers lost their final three games of the season including a very disappointing loss to a mediocre Syracuse team that hadn’t beaten anyone worthy of mentioning all year. But despite falling short at the end, the Gophers did manage to win four Big Ten games in a row for the first time in 40 years and Jerry Kill notched his first signature win by beating Nebraska at home in late October.
The collective effort from the coaching staff and the team, given Jerry Kill’s health situation, was impressive. Maybe the most impressive thing was Kill himself and how he fought back after seeking treatment for epilepsy. Don’t forget many were questioning whether or not Kill was going to be able to continue coaching following his latest bout. But the team found inner strength and the future looks bright, but it’s still looking like Minnesota has a lot of work to do in order to compete for a Big Ten Championship.