Gophers INSIDER JOE CHRISTENSEN

 

It’s only one measure, but ESPN’s Football Power Index currently gives the Gophers a 31.8 chance of winning at Nebraska this week and only a 16.5 percent chance of winning at Wisconsin in the regular-season finale.

If the Gophers can pull off those road upsets, and beat Northwestern at home (54.4 percent chance), they’ll be Big Ten West champions.

When Ohio State routed Nebraska 62-3 on Saturday night, the Gophers moved into a three-way tie for first place with the Cornhuskers and Badgers. And Iowa’s blowout loss at Penn State gave Minnesota the proverbial control of its own destiny.

“Going into the last three games, this is everything we’ve wanted,” quarterback Mitch Leidner said.

The Gophers don’t care how they got here. Sure, their defense would love to have those final 54 seconds back from Penn State after blowing that lead and losing in overtime. And an offense averaging 33.4 points per game laid a big egg in the 14-7 loss to Iowa.

But after falling to 0-2 in conference play, the Gophers have reeled off a four-game winning streak against Maryland, Rutgers, Illinois and Purdue. Those four teams are a combined 5-19 in Big Ten play, so frankly, anything less than a sweep would have been disappointing.

“It feels good, but we have bigger goals,” tailback Rodney Smith said. “This week coming up is a big week for us, and we know that. We’ve just got to fix our mistakes and prepare for Nebraska.”

The mistakes have been plentiful, including Leidner’s egregious interception right before halftime in Saturday’s 44-31 victory over Purdue. But the Gophers wouldn’t be in this position without a slew of positive developments, too. Consider:

• Smith is the Big Ten’s second-leading rusher with 954 yards and has surpassed 100 in each of the past four games.

• The Gophers rank third in the nation in turnover margin (plus-12). They have scored 90 points off turnovers, up from 37 last year, and have held opponents to 23 such points.

• The Gophers have turned 69.1 percent of their trips to the red zone (37 of 42) into touchdowns, ranking third in the Big Ten. That’s up from 52.7 percent last year.

• Emmit Carpenter has emerged as one of the Big Ten’s best kickers, hitting 16 of 18 field goals, including a 52- and a 53-yarder against Purdue. He also booted eight of his nine kickoffs for touchbacks against the Boilermakers and improved to 35-for-35 on extra points.

• The defense remains inconsistent — stifling at times, porous at others. But going on the road and holding Maryland and Illinois to a combined 27 points was impressive. And after giving up 28 first-half points to Purdue, the Gophers held the Boilermakers to three in the second half, while forcing three turnovers.

• The Gophers have 25 sacks this season, up from 22 last year. Minnesota had six sacks against Purdue, including four in that dominating second half.

“I love being around the guys every single day in practice,” Leidner said. “There’s a lot of competitive energy going on, and we just keep continuing to push each other and get better.”

The difficulty of sweeping these next three games is heightened because the Gophers must play Nebraska and Wisconsin on the road, before those huge red-clad crowds. Nebraska might be without quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. (head injury), and the Gophers won in Lincoln two years ago. But they haven’t beaten Wisconsin anywhere since 2003.

Northwestern (3-3 Big Ten) is no pushover, either. The Wildcats fell 28-24 at Ohio State two weeks ago and stayed within a touchdown against Wisconsin until the fourth quarter.

So it will be a three-game grind, but the Gophers have played some of their best football in recent years during stretches like this. In 2014, their whole season pointed toward a difficult November, and they wound up going 2-2 against Iowa, Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin.

Last year, Claeys took over for Jerry Kill heading into a three-game stretch against top-15 opponents. The Gophers went 0-3 against Michigan, Ohio State and Iowa, but each game was competitive.

“Give our best effort, one at a time,” Claeys said of this stretch. “I sure am glad we don’t have to play all three of them at the same time or the same day. They’re good football teams, but I also think we’ve got a pretty good football team.”

 

Joe Christensen covers college football for the Star Tribune. E-mail: jchristensen@startribune.com