Gophers failed to grab momentum in Michigan loss

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 5, 2012 - 11:46 AM

The Gophers saw opportunities come and go often in the first quarter in Saturday's loss to Michigan.

Jerry Kill believes in momentum, has faith in the power of a tipping point. That trust is evident in the narrow focus, such as how he viewed the Gophers' loss to Michigan on Saturday, and in the broader view, as in his assessment of Minnesota's football program overall.

For instance, the Gophers coach still was fretting a day later over his team's failure to capitalize on the Wolverines' slow adjustment to their new quarterback. Junior Devin Gardner was taking his first snaps of the season as Denard Robinson's understudy, and his inexperience showed in a terrible first quarter. Two of Michigan's three possessions went three-and-out, and the other was short-circuited by a Cedric Thompson interception.

Yet the Gophers frittered away their chance to put Michigan in a hole and perhaps induce a little panic on the visitors' sideline. They moved the ball with more success but ruined their first three drives with critical errors -- a fumbled snap, a cut-block penalty and a fourth-and-1 plunge that was stonewalled. The Gophers owned an 83-9 yardage advantage, and held the ball for more than 11 minutes in the first quarter, yet had nothing to show for it.

They opened the second quarter with a 10-yard touchdown pass, but by then Gardner had grown more comfortable in his new role and the Wolverines had made adjustments. The Wolverines moved the ball at least 79 yards on four of their next five drives to take command, and the Gophers' hopes for a tipping-point moment, for steamrolling the new quarterback, evaporated.

"I mean, you've got an opportunity to beat Michigan," Kill said with obvious regret. "If we stick 14 in there [early on], make that game 14-0, there could be a whole lot [different]. That's what's hard -- it was there to get and we didn't get it."

The same theory applies to Kill's Operation: Turnaround as a whole, and the coach is more upbeat about his chances of creating, and then riding, momentum toward competitive respectability. He considers the first part of his blueprint -- establishing and enforcing his methods of preparing -- to be mostly complete. The second step is to upgrade, particularly in the talent level, and he believes there is progress there, too.

"Recruiting and all those things are going pretty well now, to be honest," Kill said. "People in the football world know where we're at and what we're doing. There's some trust factor there, with the people [like] high school coaches. ... That part of it has helped us in recruiting. Those people believe in what we're doing, and that's important. When a kid starts to struggle, you've got that reinforcement there. So that part is going good."

NCAA rules prohibit Kill from discussing specific recruits, but he apparently has reason for enthusiasm. The coach reportedly has received verbal commitments from three highly regarded high school players just in the past week alone. According to Gopher Illustrated, the rivals.com affiliate that closely tracks football recruiting, receiver Eric Carter of Lakeland, Fla., defensive back Nate Godwin of Tampa and, late Saturday afternoon, defensive tackle Demaris Peppers of Memphis have all chosen the Gophers over other BCS-level pursuers.

Becoming more competitive enables a team to attract better recruits, and that, too, develops its own self-sustaining momentum, Kill believes.

"The biggest situation for us is keeping the coaching staff together -- that's a big thing," said Kill, whose current staff has mostly been with him for more than a decade. "This is the first time in [a decade that Minnesota has] had the same staff back to back. For recruits and players, they need to see that, including [in the] academics and strength program. Seeing the same familiar faces -- that's what our sale is."

And if it works, he said, momentum takes care of the rest.

"We're getting opportunities [to win], so we're getting closer, and that makes you hungrier -- and a little impatient sometimes," Kill said. "You get better, but you're still not good enough to win. Then you turn the corner and you start winning them."

Phil Miller • phil.miller@startribune.com

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