Best case-worst case: Minnesota
August, 31, 2009
By Adam Rittenberg | ESPN.com
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
The sixth installment in a series examining the best and worst outcomes, within reason, for each Big Ten squad.
The run game resurfaces, the defense plays takeaway and Minnesota restores its tradition in a new on-campus stadium.
Despite a change in offensive philosophy, Minnesota revives its run game and balances things out by attacking defenses with a deep and talented wide receiving corps, led by Eric Decker and Hayo Carpenter. Junior quarterback Adam Weber stays healthy, limits interceptions and operates the new scheme flawlessly with help from backup MarQueis Gray. The defense continues to pile up takeaways, replaces its lost pass-rushing production and does a better job of finishing games. Return specialist Troy Stoudermire sizzles and Minnesota replaces its starting kicker and punter.
Minnesota never wants to see the Metrodome again, but the team looks at ease in the Carrier Dome for its opener against Syracuse. Cedric McKinley makes Greg Paulus wish he'd stuck to hoops by sacking the Orange quarterback four times. The Gophers roll 41-10 and return home to open TCF Bank Stadium. Freshman linebacker Sam Maresh, who returned to football following open heart surgery last summer, leads the team onto the field as a deafening roar greets the players. Despite the emotions of the stadium opener and a tricky opponent (Air Force), Minnesota keeps its composure and improves to 2-0.
Heisman Trophy candidate Jahvid Best leads Cal into the Twin Cities on Sept. 19, but Minnesota running backs Duane Bennett, DeLeon Eskridge and Kevin Whaley end up stealing the show, piling up 285 rush yards against the Bears. Best turns in a typical performance, but the Gophers catch Cal's defense napping and win a shootout, 41-38. Entering the Top 25 for the first time, Minnesota visits Northwestern, a team that has dealt it back-to-back heartwrenching losses. This time, Minnesota prevails in dramatic fashion, as a Decker touchdown pass from Weber wins the game in overtime.
Minnesota reclaims Paul Bunyan's Axe the next week, as safety Kim Royston, a transfer from Wisconsin, knocks the 'W' decal off John Clay's helmet on a big hit. The Gophers improve to 6-0 with a homecoming blowout of Purdue before stumbling on the road against Penn State and Ohio State.
Heading into the home stretch, Minnesota splits against Michigan State and Illinois but crushes South Dakota State to improve to 8-3. The Gophers then head to Iowa City and avenge a 55-0 loss as Decker has a big day at Kinnick Stadium. The loss drops Iowa to 6-6.
At 9-3 and ranked in the Top 25, Minnesota moves on to the Outback Bowl, builds a huge lead against Georgia and doesn't blow it for its first Jan. 1 bowl victory since 1962. Decker wins the Biletnikoff Award, cornerback Traye Simmons is a finalist for the Thorpe Award and head coach Tim Brewster receives a lengthy contract extension.
The offense stalls, the defense struggles, the stadium buzz vanishes and Minnesota endures another irrelevant season.
Despite returning more experience than any Big Ten team, Minnesota struggles with the scheme changes and the bad habits that hurt the team last season resurfaces. Jedd Fisch's pro-style system doesn't click with the offensive linemen, who struggle to create room for the running backs or buy enough time for Weber to attack downfield. The defense records its share of takeaways, but it struggles to contain the pass and doesn't generate much pressure up front without defensive end Willie VanDeSteeg.
Minnesota starts the season in the wrong place -- a domed stadium -- and suffers a mental meltdown against an inferior Syracuse team. The buzz around head coach Doug Marrone's first game and Paulus' first start at quarterback spurs the Orange, while the Gophers repeatedly hurt themselves with mistakes. Paulus throws for three touchdowns and runs in the game-winning score, dunking the ball over the goalpost to secure a 30-24 victory. The Gophers look a bit rattled the next week amid the hoopla over TCF Bank Stadium, but they survive against Air Force.
Reality returns as Best runs wild against the Minnesota defense and Cal rolls to a 48-14 victory. A week later, Northwestern hands Minnesota another brutal loss, this time by blocking a 25-yard field goal attempt as time expires to prevail 24-23. Wisconsin retains the axe as Clay and Zach Brown combine for 310 rush yards, dropping Minnesota to 1-4.
After beating Purdue, Minnesota suffers back-to-back blowouts against Penn State and Ohio State. Weber is under constant duress and has to leave the Ohio State game with an injury. Gray doesn't fare much better as the Buckeyes roll. The heat begins to rise on Brewster as the Gophers begin a three-game homestand. They find a way to go 2-1 but end the season on a down note against Iowa, which posts another shutout against its archrival.
The Gophers miss a bowl for the second time in two years under Brewster, who suddenly uses far fewer exclamation points in his tweets. Athletic director Joel Maturi decides to give Brewster one more year, but it's clear that a winning record must be posted. The team's recruiting takes a step back and Brewster does some more staff shuffling. Iowa wins the Big Ten and the Rose Bowl, and Wisconsin reaches a Jan. 1 bowl.