The Gophers haven’t won a bowl game or defeated Wisconsin in more than a decade. Both accomplishments are still possible this season, which would sweeten the bitter taste fans have after four consecutive losses.
But after back-to-back 8-5 seasons, the Gophers are 4-6. No matter how this one ends, it will mark a step back in wins and losses.
“I feel like we are still moving forward, but obviously you get graded on wins and losses,” coach Tracy Claeys said Sunday, one day after a 40-35 loss at Iowa. “And if that is the way [others] want to look at it, I don’t have any control over that.”
According to Sports-Reference.com, the Gophers have played the nation’s sixth-strongest schedule, behind Maryland, Alabama, West Virginia, Georgia Tech and LSU. The website uses an algorithm that updates each week, based on how each opponent fares throughout the season.
The Gophers have four losses by a combined 28 points to teams in the top 14 of the latest Associated Press poll: TCU, Michigan, Ohio State and Iowa — teams with a combined 37-3 record.
But it’s also worth noting that the Gophers’ success the past two years came against softer competition. Sports-Reference.com calculated their 2014 schedule as the nation’s 45th-toughest, and the 2013 slate at 58th.
For all the talk about injuries this year, the Gophers also enjoyed relatively good health the previous two seasons. In 2013, for example, their starting offensive line remained fully intact until Jon Christenson suffered a broken leg in the season’s ninth game.
Last year, they shook off some early defensive line injuries and enjoyed a strong, healthy run. Mitch Leidner played with a strained knee ligament, and David Cobb returned faster than expected from a hamstring issue.
This year’s injury woes have come in waves. From their two-deep roster, the Gophers have had 24 players combine to miss 94 games. They had 10 starters out for the Iowa game, and aside from running back Rodney Smith (questionable, sprained ankle), they expect no injured players back for this week’s game against Illinois.
“When you look at the schedule and the injuries, things we’ve went through — you’ve got to play the hand you were dealt — but I think our kids have handled it extremely well,” Claeys said.
The Gophers have actually hit a nice offensive groove just in time for their defense to hit a slump. It was the opposite during nonconference play and in a 27-0 loss at Northwestern in the Big Ten opener.
Minnesota’s 35 points and 434 yards were the most Iowa had allowed all season. Four of the touchdown drives went 75 yards, and the other one went 60.
Leidner has passed for at least 250 yards in four consecutive games, matching the school record set by Mike Hohensee in 1982. Receivers KJ Maye, Drew Wolitarsky and Rashad Still and tight end Brandon Lingen are finding ways to get open, and Leidner keeps finding them.
Freshman tailback Shannon Brooks averaged 6.1 yards per carry against a stingy Iowa run defense, finally showing the same burst he had last month at Purdue.
The four-game losing streak “is tough, but we’ve got to try to keep our spirits up,” Leidner said. “We don’t have an off week or anything like that. We’ve got to bounce back and play a good Illinois team, and get a lot of redemption after what happened last year against those guys.”
The Gophers will play Illinois and Wisconsin at home to close the regular season. In that home finale, they will be trying to win Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the first time since 2003.
The Gophers need to win both games to assure themselves their fourth consecutive bowl berth. It probably wouldn’t be a New Year’s Day bowl, but this team would welcome any chance to win its first bowl game since 2004.
“We will compete the last two games and do everything we can to get bowl-eligible,” Claeys said. “I guess that I’d look at [this losing streak] differently if we were getting blown out every week and all that. But we are competing hard.”