The Gophers were jubilant in the visitors' locker room in Champaign, Ill., two weeks ago, their season's primary goal accomplished. Two games remained in the season, but "we consider those an opportunity to keep this going," quarterback Philip Nelson said at the time.
Turns out, they were indeed an opportunity -- to ruin all that optimism, to spoil those good feelings.
The Gophers have more than a month to recapture their zeal for football, and they might need it, because the past two weeks have punctured a season that felt a lot more successful before Nebraska and Michigan State got their mitts on it. The Gophers weren't competitive against the Legends Division champion Cornhuskers a week ago in a 38-14 loss on the road, and their offense ground to a virtual standstill Saturday, leading to a 26-10 home loss to the Spartans.
The freshman quarterback has looked like any freshman would under relentless defensive pressure, and the Gophers defense has reverted to being trampled by tailbacks. Attendance has sagged at TCF Bank Stadium, where the student section was three-fourths empty on Saturday.
Their coach spent last week answering questions about a disgruntled walk-on-turned-walk-off receiver, then made everyone forget them by raising new ones about his health. His boss expressed "100 percent" support for Jerry Kill, but athletic director Norwood Teague also acknowledged that Kill's seizures are creating a perception problem for the program, and probably a recruiting problem, too.
No wonder these Gophers are looking forward to getting out of town.
"The bowl experience is a great experience, but we can't be satisfied with just getting to go to a bowl," defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said. "We need to take a week and get our thoughts together, and then we have to go win that thing and get the tide turned here."
It's a pretty strong tide, though.
Saturday's giant fizzle was the worst offensive performance by a Gophers team since 1974, and the worst by a Big Ten team in five years, but it only extended a trend: Minnesota's passing game hasn't eclipsed 100 yards in three consecutive games. Nelson, throwing to a receiving corps missing the injured-and-then-insulted A.J. Barker, has amassed only 198 total yards in three games, or fewer than Penn State's Matt McGloin averages in three quarters.
The Gophers didn't penetrate the red zone until the fourth quarter at Nebraska. On Saturday, they never got there at all.
"We just didn't move the ball," said part-time quarterback, part-time receiver MarQueis Gray. "Plain and simple."
The defense, meanwhile, allowed Le'Veon Bell to rush for 266 yards, the biggest single-game output by a Big Ten back this year.
Gray was named the Gophers' MVP at the team's season-ending banquet on Sunday, but it's hardly been the season he envisioned. Tailback Donnell Kirkwood was chosen the outstanding offensive player, and cornerback Michael Carter the top defender.
They will head either to Houston to face a Big 12 team in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, or to Dallas to face a Big 12 opponent in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. And they will try to forget the past two weeks, two of the worst in Kill's tenure, ever happened.
"I feel like we left it all out there on the field. There is always room to get better," Carter said. "We'll just have to get back into the chalkboard room and get better."
Phil Miller • firstname.lastname@example.org