The 2012 Gophers played Wisconsin at Madison on Oct. 20. James White had 15 carries for 175 yards, and Montee Ball had 24 for 166. The second half was a Minnesota humiliation, and the final was 38-13 for the Badgers.
The final home game for those Gophers was a 26-10 loss to Michigan State on Nov. 24. Le’Veon Bell rushed 35 times for 266 yards and the Spartans had a total yardage advantage of 421 to 96.
On Saturday, the Gophers lost to Wisconsin 20-7 at a packed TCF Bank Stadium. It gave the Badgers a 10-game winning streak against Minnesota, which is the longest for either team in a series dating to 1890.
The Gophers will finish the regular season against Michigan State next Saturday in East Lansing. The Gophers (4-3 in the conference) will be substantial underdogs as MSU seeks to go 8-0 in the Big Ten.
So, the Badgers have their victory and the Spartans probably will get theirs, but Gophers fans can be certain of this:
When it comes to the physical part of playing Big Ten football, coach Jerry Kill’s third Minnesota team is far different as a collection of competitors than was his second.
This time, Wisconsin running backs weren’t tearing through gaps in a defense on the retreat. This time, White and Melvin Gordon faced resistance early and still were encountering it late.
“We thought we did a pretty good job,” Kill said. “Wisconsin wasn’t running all over the place. … Physically? I think we’re catching up.”
Catching up, as in what it takes to stand up to the pounding that exists over the course of a conference schedule, to show you can be physical not only in September against Eastern Nowhere but in November against the Big Ten’s tough guys.
OK, when compared to the SEC, the Big Ten might be the ECHL to the NHL, but it still turns cold in these parts late in the fall, and there still are teams like Wisconsin and MSU that want to pound you in the facemask, and if you can’t (or won’t) stand up …
Two guys from Wisconsin will rush for 341 yards, and one guy from MSU will rush for 266 yards, and everyone in the Big Ten will understand that you don’t really belong.
On this frozen Saturday, White needed 26 carries to get 125 yards, an average of 4.8 (compared to 11.7 last year). Gordon, a sophomore and the Badgers’ next beast, rushed 12 times for 75 yards, a 6.3 average.
Wisconsin had 197 yards rushing and 324 total. “Against that football team, that is pretty darn good,” Kill said.
Darn right, it is.
Standing up to the physical challenge of Wisconsin’s running game was not the Gophers’ failure.
“Wisconsin has a good running system, a great offensive line and two great running backs,” senior tackle Ra’Shede Hageman said. “The fact we bowed our necks and stopped the running game is definitely an improvement.”
After watching this slugfest, a case could be made that Kill and his staff are halfway home in the massive rebuild they took on in December 2010.
The Gophers are catching up with the physical part — the combination of strength and determination — of what it takes to play big-time football in the Midwest.
What Kill’s squad still lacks could be the more difficult half of the formula: assembling the true athletes, the playmakers.
A while back, an old coach described a football player as an “athlete,” then looked at me and said:
“Do you know what makes an athlete? A player when his mind tells him to do something, he can do it.”
In other words, not envisioning a play … actually making it.
The Gophers demonstrated no true athletes in the passing game on Saturday, not in quarterback Philip Nelson (poor performance) nor in the receivers (worse performance).
They might have had fine thoughts, but there was no execution.
The Gophers’ running game had some moments, but inside linebacker Chris Borland and his Wisconsin mates shut that down when necessary and threw a defensive shutout.
Now that Borland … there’s an athlete. When his mind told him to do something, he was there to get it done while the Gophers still were thinking about it.