I guess the moment when I realized how badly Saturday's game was going to go for the Gophers came ... wait, let me check my notes ... oh yes. The opening kickoff.
C'mon, they talk all week about taking responsibility, about focus, about eliminating mistakes -- and by the way, kickoffs were a specific priority -- and the first play, an ugly line-drive that didn't come close to staying in bounds, contradicts all that?
Ugly. I knew Northern Illinois would be better than most fans realize, that they are a decent mid-level team. But I admit, I believed the Gophers (and their coaches) when they swore this week that they were going to halt this slide before it consumed their season. They understood how high the stakes were.
That's why this loss is worse than the South Dakota upset. There were reasonable alibis for the first two losses -- they took USD too lightly and underestimated the mobile quarterback, and then played much better against nationally ranked USC -- and the season opened with such promise in Murfreesboro. I understand the postgame locker room was pretty rough tonight, even some tears, and I don't doubt it. This one likely came as a real shock to some of the players, many of whom likely expected gradual improvement.
But there were few signs of that improvement on Saturday. The running game didn't work, special teams were a disaster (though stripping NIU of a kickoff was a nice payback), and tackling has gone from an annoyance to a five-alarm fire. Many of the statistics are weirdly positive -- Adam Weber threw for 373 yards, for instance, second-most of his career -- but the reality in the stadium was not. The Huskies just looked like the better team.
And that's got to hurt the Gophers most of all.