Jerry Kill wasted no time after Saturday’s loss to Ohio State, reminding the Gophers that all their goals are still in front of them.
Sure, the 31-24 loss stung. But even if the Gophers had pulled the upset, their goal of winning the Big Ten championship would have required wins the next two weeks at Nebraska and at Wisconsin.
And even with the loss to Ohio State, if the Gophers (4-2 Big Ten) beat the Cornhuskers (4-2) and Badgers (5-1), they will win the Big Ten West. The first tiebreaker is head-to-head record.
De’Vondre Campbell took Kill’s message to heart.
“I think we have a great chance to beat Nebraska and Wisconsin,” the junior linebacker said. “We’ve just got to get back to the lab, correct our mistakes from today, and I think we’ll be fine. We’re not too worried about it. We’ll see [Ohio State] again in three weeks.”
The press corps was a bit stunned when he said that. Did he really mean “in three weeks” at the Big Ten championship game, in Indianapolis?
“Yeah,” Campbell said. “We’ll see them again in three weeks.”
So it doesn’t sound as if confidence will be an issue the next two games, even though the Gophers got blown out by 24 and 25 points, respectively, on their last visits to Lincoln and Madison, in 2012.
The Gophers upset Nebraska last year 34-23 at TCF Bank Stadium, but they haven’t beaten Wisconsin since 2003 and haven’t won at Camp Randall since 1994.
Buoyed by their home crowd, the Badgers pummeled Nebraska 59-24 on Saturday. Melvin Gordon rushed for 408 yards, breaking LaDainian Tomlinson’s NCAA Division I single-game record, even though Gordon sat out the fourth quarter.
That should bode well for David Cobb and the Gophers’ rushing attack at Nebraska, but Kill noted how quickly things change from week to week. He pointed to Northwestern’s victory at Notre Dame on Saturday as proof that people really never know what’s going to happen.
“That’s what makes the game so great,” Kill said Sunday.
Ohio State has won a record 22 consecutive Big Ten regular-season games, but Kill liked much of what he saw from his Gophers on Saturday.
The Gophers held Ohio State 15 points below its scoring average. They rushed for 218 yards, the most the Buckeyes had allowed since their season opener against Navy. And the Gophers were opportunistic, turning three turnovers into 21 points.
“There isn’t anybody in America who thought we were going to play Ohio State like that, I’m just telling you,” Kill said. “That’s what’s disappointing: We had a chance to win. Our kids played hard. We just had eight or 10 plays in there where we didn’t play very smart.”
Kill was far less upset about Mitch Leidner’s two second-half interceptions than the sequences that preceded them, setting up third-and-long on both throws. The second one came on third-and-6, after the Gophers were flagged for an illegal formation.
“You heard me say all week, ‘Don’t get in third-and-long,’ ” Kill said. “Those were critical errors in the game.”
The Gophers also made costly mistakes on defense. Linebacker Damien Wilson missed his gap on J.T. Barrett’s 86-yard touchdown run. On Jalin Marshall’s 57-yard touchdown reception, Cedric Thompson came centimeters from breaking up the pass. But when he missed, Marshall was off to the races. The Gophers also had a coverage breakdown when they left Michael Thomas wide open for his 30-yard touchdown catch.
These next two opponents can make teams pay, too. Wisconsin is tied for first in the nation in plays of 40-plus yards with 23, and Nebraska ranks tied for eighth with 18 of those plays.
“We’ve just got to play like we did against Iowa,” Kill said, referring to his team’s 51-14 win Nov. 8.
That’s asking a lot, but if the Gophers can do it, these two road wins are definitely possible. And Campbell might prove right about the return engagement with Ohio State.
Note: The Gophers will have their sixth consecutive 11 a.m. kickoff Saturday at Nebraska. The game will be televised on ESPN.
Joe Christensen firstname.lastname@example.org