The Gophers hope this Saturday’s battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe at TCF Bank Stadium will be a much different story. Both teams are 8-2. Wisconsin appears to have a better team than the one that finished 8-6 last year, but Minnesota has made even bigger strides after last year’s 6-7 finish.
For the Gophers, two statistics stand out: They are scoring 30.7 points per game, an increase from 22.1 last year. Then there’s the turnover margin. The Gophers were minus-two last year (20 turnovers caused, 22 committed), and this year they are plus-six (15 caused, nine committed).
Minnesota has transformed itself from a team that felt fortunate to reach a bowl game last year to one with an outside chance at reaching the Big Ten title game. Here are the five main reasons for the turnaround:
1. David Cobb’s emergence
Kill and offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover have built a ball-control offense that can control the clock. The Gophers ranked fourth in the Big Ten last year with an average time of possession of 31 mnutes, 3 seconds this year, they’ve climbed to third at 33:23.
To do this, it takes a strong offensive line and good running back play.
Donnell Kirkwood led the Gophers last year with 71.2 rushing yards per game. In the process, he averaged 4.2 yards per carry. He sprained his ankle in this year’s opener, and David Cobb has emerged as the team’s go-to running back.
Cobb ranks fifth in the Big Ten, averaging 94.2 yards per game. He averages 5.4 yards per carry and has rushed for at least 138 yards in the past three games.
2. Philip Nelson’s efficiency
Another key to the improved offense has been the quarterback play. Philip Nelson made seven starts as a freshman last year and turned in a passer efficiency rating of 104.4.
This statistic is a combined measure of completion percentage, passing yardage, touchdowns and interceptions. Nelson’s overall passer efficiency rating this year is 141.6; in Big Ten play it’s 159.4, which ranks second to Ohio State’s Braxton Miller (165.7).
When Nelson was slowed because of a hamstring injury, Mitch Leidner gave the Gophers a potent running threat at quarterback and a 124.6 passer efficiency.
But Nelson has returned and found another level. He hasn’t fumbled or thrown an interception since the Sept. 28 loss to Iowa. Since then, he has passed for seven touchdowns and run for three.
3. The Maxx Williams effect
The most glaring concern for the Gophers early this season was their wide receivers. A.J. Barker quit the team last season, leaving no one else who had caught more than 20 passes.
Derrick Engel has helped fill that void, with 25 catches for 401 yards and five touchdowns. Donovahn Jones and Drew Wolitarsky, both true freshmen, have been coming on strong of late, giving Nelson other open wide receiver targets.
But one of the team’s best weapons has been true freshman tight end Maxx Williams, who has 17 receptions for 299 yards and four touchdowns.