MINNEAPOLIS – The good news for Minnesota last weekend was that the Gophers had plenty of opportunities to assemble a strong enough game to beat Michigan, one of the Big Ten powers they've been least successful against.
The bad? They still lost at home by 22 points.
So the Gophers (5-4, 1-4) have moved on, buoyed by their clear improvement over last season when they fell 58-0 to the Wolverines but frustrated by a lingering inability to put together the kind of performance required to beat the traditional big boys of the conference.
"You can't really practice it. You've just got to get in the games and do it. That just comes by experience," quarterback Philip Nelson said Tuesday. "I think that we're so close to getting there that it really creates some disappointment after the games."
This is what happens with many rebuilding projects. They're still lacking the overall talent and attitude to play well most of the time.
"When you first take a program over, they're usually open because there's a reason for it. There's a struggle there. And your first year, you're just not very good," Gophers coach Jerry Kill said. "The second and third year, and you hope you can move it quickly, is that you win some games, but then you're close in a lot of games that you don't win because you're not quite good enough to get over that hump, and I'd like to see us be able to get over that hump a little bit."
There were at least three glaring examples in Saturday's 35-13 loss for the Gophers of a team capable of hanging with one of the Big Ten's best but not yet able to produce enough confidence, smart calls or clutch plays to win.
— Michigan had the ball at the Minnesota 45 midway through the second quarter trailing 7-0 and facing a third-and-17. Gophers linemen got to the backfield, forcing quarterback Devin Gardner to scramble to avoid a sack. After running the equivalent of roughly the entire width of the field, Gardner saw Drew Dileo wide open in the end zone and threw him ball for the tying touchdown. As well as the Gophers had the rest of the receivers covered, one lapse cost them dearly on that play.
"We had all the momentum in the world. At some point, we lost it. And we struggled to get it back," safety Brock Vereen said.
— Trailing 21-7 late in the third quarter, Minnesota had first-and-goal at the Michigan 3. But Donnell Kirkwood was stopped for no gain, and then Nelson was too. Next came a false start penalty on left guard Zac Epping, and Nelson's third-and-long pass was incomplete, prompting a short field goal.
"Anytime you get inside the 5-yard line, you've GOT to come out with a touchdown," Nelson said Tuesday. "I'm sure that's something that's going to be a huge point of emphasis this week in practice."
— When the Wolverines got the ball back, Gardner completed a third-and-4 throw to Dileo for 11 yards to midfield. Then on the next play, Gardner threw a pass into double coverage that Ray Roundtree somehow came down with at the 3-yard line. Troy Stoudermire was in prime position for the interception, but in the end, the ball landed in Roundtree's hands.
"We're making good plays, we're making strides, but that's not much of a consolation," linebacker Mike Rallis said.
A trip to Illinois is on tap for this Saturday. The Illini (2-7, 0-5) are already playing for next season. With a game at Nebraska on Nov. 17 and Michigan State due at TCF Bank Stadium on Nov. 24, this is obviously the best chance for the Gophers to ensure themselves an extra game.
"Not making a bowl game is not really an option for me," Rallis said, adding: "We're getting down to the end of it, and we need to find a way to get a couple victories here and go out the right way. But we've got to start with this one game and kind of get in that atmosphere where every game is a huge game."
The Gophers will likely be without leading receiver A.J. Barker again. He didn't play against Michigan because of a right ankle he sprained in the previous week's win over Purdue. Barker has 30 receptions, 577 yards and seven touchdowns, by far the most on the team in each category. The freshman Nelson has showed promise and poise in three starts since taking over the job, but success is harder for him without his best target.
"Unless some miracle takes place, so to speak, I don't look for him to be able to play on Saturday," Kill said.
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