Gophers Looking Ahead with Anticipation

The Gophers saw signs of turning the corner last year, and after a 6-1 start to the 2008 season, they are off this weekend and can reflect on the past and the progress they've made.

After pulling off the most stunning upset of the Big Ten season, the Gophers deserve a week off. That's exactly what they'll get, entering a bye week 6-1 overall (2-1 in the Big Ten) following their 27-20 victory over Illinois.

Minnesota joins Northwestern (5-1) as the two biggest surprises in the Big Ten. That suits the Gophers just fine, who saw the potential for this last year. In fact, it was a double-overtime loss to those Wildcats last season that first showed athletic director Joel Maturi the corner was just ahead.

"It's like last year, when we went for 2 against Northwestern," Maturi said. "We didn't make it, but every kid said it was the right thing to do. Northern Illinois [in the season opener]? I'd have kicked a field goal. The kids were all for going for it. Give him credit, the kids believe."

Minnesota lost that game to Northwestern last year, 49-48. The Gophers beat Northern Illinois to open this season, 31-27. There is still plenty of work to be done.

Six wins gets the Gophers bowl-eligible, but by no means ensures a bowl game. The Gophers will undoubtedly be hampered by their history of not traveling well to bowl sites, meaning they must continue to accumulate wins in order to force the hand of bowl committees.

Looking at the five remaining games, only Northwestern and Iowa are over .500 today. A nine or even 10-win season in a watered down Big Ten is within reach, something that never seemed possible coming off last year's disastrous one-win showing.

"We all play together, we can't be stopped," linebacker Simoni Lawrence said. "When we play as a team, we're a good football team."

NOTES

NEXT GAME: Minnesota at Purdue, Oct. 25 — The Boilermakers have lost three straight and this week face 5-1 Northwestern, so there is a very real possibility they will enter the game against the Gophers 2-5 and having lost four in a row. Purdue's defense has played better of late, but the Gophers are full of confidence after going into Champaign, Ill. and coming out with a victory. They'll use this week to rest, heal and scheme for arguably the worst defense in the Big Ten.

THIS WEEK'S MISSION: Coaches will often say a bye week comes at a good time, but the Gophers really do need the time to let players heal. QB Adam Weber played against Illinois after having his knee scoped six days earlier. WR Eric Decker played through a sprained shoulder. CB Marcus Sherels, the team's best cover corner, couldn't play because of a shoulder injury from the previous week. The Gophers may have stumbled simply from injuries catching up to them. Now with a week to heal, the top two playmakers on offense and the key to the secondary can hopefully be ready for Purdue.

NOVEMBER AT A GLANCE: That Nov. 1 home game against Northwestern suddenly has much more relevance than it first seemed. Beyond that, the Gophers host a stumbling Michigan team that has lost its way and a hurting Wisconsin team that has lost three straight. By Nov. 15, the Badgers could be back to form, or they could have given up on the season. Bottom line? The Gophers should finish the year with at least eight victories, and given how they performed at Illinois, it's not inconceivable to imagine them running the table.

LOOKING GOOD: Eric Decker continues to be the best receiver in the Big Ten no one has ever heard of, in part because QB Adam Weber is the toughest quarterback in the league. Together, they give Minnesota a formidable combination that teams around the league have to start taking seriously. Defensively, the 20 forced turnovers are tops in the Big Ten and help mask some of the Gophers' defensive deficiencies.

STILL NEEDS WORK: The 260 passing yards allowed per game, which ranks 103rd in the nation, is far too many. The Gophers need to shore up their secondary, or it may cost them against pass-happy Purdue. Also, RB DeLeon Eskridge is averaging less than four yards per carry, a figure that needs to increase to help balance the attack. He did rush for 124 yards against Illinois, so perhaps he is close to breaking through consistently.

CRITICAL DECISION: Perhaps the most critical decision of the season came in the first game, when Tim Brewster had enough faith in a team that hadn't done much of anything to that point. Minnesota trailed Northern Illinois, 27-24 in the final minute when the Gophers were facing a fourth-and-1 from the 3. Brewster elected to go for it and Duane Bennett bulled into the end zone, securing the 31-24 win. Success has grown from that, all the way up until the program-changing victory at Illinois.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "The bye is coming at a great time. We need the bye, we're nicked up. We're banged up. I'm going to give these kids a good rest. We'll savor this victory, enjoy this thing. Then we'll get ready to work off the bye and continue this." — Coach Tim Brewster.

ROSTER REPORT

  • DE Willie VanDeSteeg was named the Big Ten's co-defensive player of the week after sacking Juice Williams three times, forcing a fumble that was returned for a touchdown and hitting Williams as he was releasing the ball, forcing an interception on Illinois' final series. It was a big day for a defensive end who continues to improve every week.

  • QB Adam Weber (knee), WR Eric Decker (shoulder), CB Marcus Sherels (shoulder) and offensive linemen Dom Alford and Ned Tavale can all use the off week to heal various injuries. All are expected to be back for Purdue on Oct. 25, although the only two locks for that are Weber and Decker.


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