A bouquet of roses sat on Jerry Kill's desk on Sunday, a thank-you for a favor, he said, from a friend. But considering Kill coaches one of only five remaining undefeated Big Ten teams, the roses also could serve as a symbol of ...
Nah. Can't do it. Even the most maroon-hearted Gophers booster isn't ready to claim that Minnesota's 2-0 start means anything more than beating who you should, not when it came at the expense of a UNLV team that followed up on Saturday by losing to FCS-level Northern Arizona, and a New Hampshire team that plays in the FCS itself.
The Gophers are 2-0 and definitely appear more talented than last year's 3-9 squad. But how good are they?
Even Kill is wary.
"We have the capability of winning every week," Kill said. "But [we have] mistakes, dropped snaps, somebody blowing an assignment. We're not as physical as we need to be yet. So we have a lot of work to do yet."
And the best time to fix problems, he believes, is when the team is winning. That's why, though the Gophers' first two victories were gratifying to Kill, he made it clear that they were far from satisfying, even -- or maybe especially -- Saturday's 44-7 rout of the Wildcats. The running backs didn't block as well as they did last week, he said. The defense got tired. And the offense squandered opportunities -- through fumbles, mistakes and penalties -- that might haunt them more dearly against better opposition, Kill fretted.
"Our big thing offensively right now is, we've [always] got one player breaking down. To execute on offense, you've got to all be on the same page, and we still have a player breaking down here and there on a play," Kill said. "We had to punt the ball four times -- we should never have had to punt the damn ball."
Those four failed drives, and especially the three in the first half, were directly attributable to their own mistakes, he said, not defensive stops. The Gophers' first possession was doomed by a penalty for 12 men in the huddle. Later in the quarter, MarQueis Gray fumbled a snap (one of three in the game, Kill noted dryly), then recovered it, a 5-yard loss that killed the drive. The next possession was foiled when Isaac Fruechte, who caught a touchdown pass earlier in the game, dropped a third-down pass.
"They're all things we shot ourselves in the foot with," Kill complained. "If you want to be proficient on offense, you can't do that."
The offense's problems even affected the defense, the coach said. The Gophers had three consecutive possessions of three plays or fewer (though one was a one-play, 27-yard touchdown pass) in the first quarter, and the Gophers defense wasn't getting enough rest, Kill said. The result was New Hampshire's lone touchdown drive, an eight-play, 76-yard march that pulled the Wildcats within two points at 9-7.
"That's the scary thing. We'd gone out [quickly], three and out, the defense was out there, and boom, boom. They speeded up [their offense] a little bit, and I think some fatigue came into effect," Kill said. "I was very concerned at that point."
But the Gophers answered with Gray's big run, a 75-yard romp in which he faked a handoff to K.J. Maye, cut behind a block, and broke into the open field.
"We turned around and answered, boom," Kill said. "That broke the momentum."
Now the Gophers seem to have some actual momentum of their own, heading into what figure to be the two much more difficult nonconference games on the schedule: visits by Western Michigan and Syracuse. The Broncos come Saturday after rolling up 631 yards of offense in a rout of FCS-level Eastern Illinois, while Syracuse is 0-2 but has scored a total of 70 points against Northwestern and second-ranked USC.
"I'm glad we won, but we still have to improve," Kill said. "We're doing some things that can't happen. So now is the time to be critical."
Phil Miller • firstname.lastname@example.org