See that? Three weeks into the Big Ten season, and the Gophers have climbed out of last place.

It's not actual progress, but merely a schedule quirk, a byproduct of taking a week off while Northwestern fell to 0-3 in the Legends Division. And that's the last favor that the Gophers will receive from their schedule, which turns even more brutal in the season's second half. Four of Minnesota's six remaining opponents are ranked in the Associated Press Top 25, starting with No. 13 Nebraska on Saturday.

Not that Gophers coach Jerry Kill and his staff believe that the situation is hopeless, not even for a team that is 1-5 at the midpoint of its season for the third time in five years.

"Strange things happen; they happen all over the country every week," Kill said Sunday on a WCCO radio interview. "They're called upsets."

The Gophers have been outscored 103-17 in their two Big Ten losses this year, but Kill said he doesn't believe that's representative of the relative strength of his team right now. The 45-17 loss to Purdue turned lopsided not because the Boilermakers were overwhelming but because the Gophers made critical errors -- two fumbles, a shanked punt and an interception returned for a touchdown, all in the first quarter.

"We've just got to get to where we don't turn the ball over, [commit] penalties, [make] mistakes that beat you," Kill said. "If we can cut some of those things out and just play hard, that will help us."

It will, but something else is missing, too: big-play ability. Even last season's 3-9 Gophers team had a quick-strike ability that helped keep them in games. But this year's team has not demonstrated the same aptitude for breaking tackles and getting open.

The 2010 Gophers pulled off 45 pass plays that gained 20 or more yards, and 13 of them went for touchdowns. But so far this season, only 14 such plays have gained 20 yards, and only one reached the end zone. Projected over a full season, that's a decline in big-play production of 38 percent.

It's probably no coincidence that the three longest plays from scrimmage this year came in Minnesota's lone victory, a 29-23 win over Miami (Ohio).

The change is most visible in Da'Jon McKnight's success rate. The senior receiver has caught 25 passes for 316 yards, or 4.2 passes for 52.7 yards per game. That's actually more catches than his 4.0-per-game average of 2010, and only a marginal drop from his 62.5-yard average.

But McKnight, with MarQueis Gray passing him the ball instead of Adam Weber, has only reached the end zone once this season, a shocking drop from the 10 touchdowns he scored last season. As a junior, McKnight picked up 20 or more yards 15 times; halfway through his senior year, only three times.

It's not just McKnight, either. Last year's Gophers -- who finished 10th in the Big Ten in scoring -- managed 35 offensive touchdowns, but this year's team has only 11.

The big-play deficit extends to the defense. Turnovers are the biggest plays a defense can make, and the Gophers are creating fewer of them than they did a year ago. Minnesota recovered eight fumbles in 2010, ranking fifth in the Big Ten, and intercepted 11 passes, which ranked seventh.

This year? The Gophers have fallen on one fumble and intercepted only three passes, ranking last in the conference in both categories.

"We just keep working. Our kids had a good attitude last week -- they know they've got to get better," Kill said. "Sometimes you can't worry [about getting] beat 3-0 or 40-0. It's a loss. You've got to show them the film, teach them and be positive. You keep working with them, and we will."

Phil Miller •