The Gophers proudly proclaimed themselves an improved football team this season. At every chance, they trumpeted a bigger, faster, stronger refrain. Just you wait, they vowed, this year will be different.

Maybe they still believe that internally, but the proof is in the results, and that giddy 4-0 start looks more like fool's gold right now.

On a miserably rainy day, the Gophers' performance mirrored the weather. They bumbled and stumbled and fumbled away a winnable game against a Northwestern team that was ripe for defeat.

The offense undermined itself with a comedy of errors. The defense took a snooze in the first half. And the offensive playcalling and coaching decisions were baffling.

It all added up to a 21-13 loss in front of thousands of empty seats at TCF Bank Stadium in a game that dropped the Gophers to 0-2 in the Big Ten and raised serious doubt about how much improvement they truly have made.

"We have no margin for error," coach Jerry Kill said.

Oh, they erred a lot. Thankfully, though, Kill didn't mention his team's youth as a reason for the litany of mistakes because, frankly, that line is growing old and what happened Saturday shouldn't be pinned on age.

The Gophers helped defeat themselves, which is far worse than just physically getting outplayed by an opponent. Teams can live with that. The Gophers had no excuse for laying an egg. They were at home and refreshed and healthy coming off their bye.

Northwestern, on the other hand, lost a heartbreaker at Penn State last week, was playing its second consecutive road game and does not get its bye for a few more weeks. The Wildcats didn't line up with superior talent or athletes, either. They just took advantage of the Gophers' endless stream of miscues and goofy play calls.

"We killed ourselves," linebacker Keanon Cooper said.

They did so in myriad ways. They actually trailed 11 seconds into the game despite receiving the opening kickoff and playing one down on defense. That was incredible even by Gophers standards.

They fumbled seven times (losing two) and threw one interception. They botched multiple quarterback exchanges and suffered a 17-yard loss when center Zac Epping snapped the ball when MarQueis Gray wasn't looking. And before anyone blames the problems on sloppy conditions, Northwestern played in the rain too and didn't fumble once.

The defense didn't even breathe on Northwestern's Venric Mark on several long runs up the middle in the first half. Granted, the defense settled in and held firm in the second half, but it's hardly worth a pat on the back when an opposing running back churns out 151 yards rushing and two touchdowns on only 11 carries before halftime.

The coaching staff didn't exactly have a stellar showing either. Kill signed off on the most obvious fake field-goal attempt in history after Jordan Wettstein lined up for a 53-yard field goal on fourth-and-11. Predictably, Northwestern snuffed out the trickery. Why not just go for it with the offense in that situation instead?

Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover had a handful of curious play calls as injuries to Gray and Max Shortell caused a quarterback shuffle. Twice on third-and-13 the Gophers ran the ball, including a quarterback draw. But they passed on third-and-1 in the fourth quarter, which resulted in a Shortell sack.


Kill pinned the offensive problems on a lack of "continuity," and that probably won't improve until Gray returns from his latest ankle injury. Forget about that quarterback controversy nonsense. The Gophers need Gray to operate their offense if they have any hope of preventing this season from circling the drain.

The Gophers suddenly find themselves in a dicey spot. The hope and optimism surrounding their undefeated nonconference romp has vanished with back-to-back conference losses. The schedule becomes significantly more difficult now, starting next week at Wisconsin.

The Gophers keep telling us they are improved and better equipped to handle adversity, but those words ring hollow until they actually prove it on the field against Big Ten competition.

Their performance on a dreary Saturday just looked and felt like more of the same.

Chip Scoggins •