After Nebraska, optimism is a survivor at U

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 24, 2011 - 8:10 AM

Despite newly inflicted bruises courtesy of Nebraska and a 1-6 start, these Gophers, says coach Jerry Kill, still could win a game in the Big Ten.

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Jerry Kill wasn’t hanging his head as he left the field following Saturday’s loss to Nebraska. The Gophers coach said he was encouraged by the team’s improved execution in the second half. “We weren’t consistent, but we definitely got better today,” Kill said.

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The record is awful, the mistakes embarrassing, the opposition frequently overwhelming. But the Gophers coach remains a believer.

"There's no reason to be miserable. We don't feel good about our record, but we're going to keep our energy and keep moving forward," he said after the Gophers' latest drubbing. So is a Big Ten victory, he was asked, even remotely possible? "Yeah, I really think so," the coach said. "We've had a few get out of control a little bit because we got sloppy, but when we execute we can be successful. I really believe that."

With good reason. Those aren't Jerry Kill's words. They belong to Jeff Horton, and the interim coach's confidence last November was rewarded with not only one conference victory but a pair of them, long after the Gophers had been left for last-place roadkill.

Kill on Saturday sounded as irrepressible as Horton, refusing to complain about the Gophers' toxic combination of mystifying mistakes, underwhelming talent and bad luck, and sounding optimistic about what's ahead. "There are good things on that film," he said of the game tape after the Gophers fell to 1-6 after a 41-14 loss to Nebraska. "The team responded well in the second half and fought back, which showed toughness. We weren't consistent, but we definitely got better today."

The situations are obviously different. Last year's Gophers had more depth and a poised, four-year starter at quarterback, and had a play-for-ourselves attitude about the season's final weeks. Kill's focus is long-term, laying the foundation for improvement that still is years away.

But his concern for the immediate hasn't disappeared, and his players feel it, too. "We've been hit with a lot of adversity as a team, and our defense has gotten together and talked about [how] whatever we get dealt, we will try and bounce back from it," senior cornerback Kyle Henderson said. "It really doesn't matter what happens. We're just going to go out and play."

It's the only logical sentiment, particularly for the Gophers veterans, who have to be disappointed that their careers will end with back-to-back largely painful seasons. With five games remaining, however, the question presents itself once more: Can the Gophers win a Big Ten game?

It's no more absurd than last year's 1-9 team suddenly rising up against a pair of bowl-bound conference foes, Illinois and Iowa. And those Hawkeyes, 5-2 after Saturday's 45-24 thumping of Indiana, come to Minneapolis next Saturday. Their record might disguise more weaknesses than Iowans believe, considering their pair of conference victories have come against the Big Ten's two 0-4 teams, Indiana and Northwestern.

The Hawkeyes defense is roughly equal, statistically, to Minnesota's, with both teams allowing more than 400 yards per game. Iowa also has gained exactly 4 more yards on the ground this season than the Gophers; it's the passing game, with junior quarterback James Vandenberg connecting with veteran receivers Marvin McNutt and Keenan Davis, that separates the teams.

That's followed by matchups with a pair of championship contenders, Michigan State and Wisconsin, the biggest challenges remaining on Minnesota's schedule. Michigan State will be coming off a grueling Ohio State-Michigan-Wisconsin-Nebraska stretch, so figure the Gophers to be taken lightly.

The season ends with a road trip to Northwestern, where the return of quarterback Dan Persa from surgery hasn't prevented a five-game losing streak, and at home against Illinois, the team that sparked the Gophers' turnaround last year and which has lost two consecutive games after a 6-0 start.

"It's one of the great things about college football," Kill said. "You never know each Saturday who's going to win."

Are the Gophers, who showed flickers of improvement against Nebraska, up to another late-season resurrection?

Quarterback MarQueis Gray believes it.

"Once we settled down and didn't have any negative plays [Saturday], we moved the ball pretty well," Gray said. Minnesota's final drive, a 16-play, 89-yard march (albeit against Nebraska's reserves), seemed to back him up; Gray completed all six of his passes on that drive, and the Gophers converted three third downs and a fourth down to keep the possession alive.

"Eliminate the negative plays," Gray said, "and we should be able to move the ball on any team."

Phil Miller • phil.miller@startribune.com

  • related content

  • Gophers-Nebraska replay

    Monday October 24, 2011

    The recap: For the third consecutive conference game, the Gophers made critical errors -- penalties, turnovers, missed tackles -- in the first half and fell far behind.

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