- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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It's time to pass out grades for Minnesota's 2011 season.
The Gophers showed a few promising flashes down the stretch, but they struggled offensively for most of the season. They ranked last in the Big Ten in both scoring (18.4 ppg) and total offense (310.3 ypg) and never scored more than 30 points in a game. Quarterback MarQueis Gray ran the ball well at times but struggled as a passer, completing barely half of his attempts with as many interceptions (8) as touchdown strikes. To be fair, Gray was transitioning to quarterback after a year at wide receiver and had to adjust to a new system. He should be better in 2012. The key will be developing weapons around him as several young players, including receivers Malcolm Moulton and Marcus Jones, got their feet wet this year.
The unit entered the season with question marks and didn't provide many answers until the final five contests, two of which resulted in victories (Iowa and Illinois). Minnesota ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in all the major defensive statistical categories. Despite some experience at linebacker and an excellent safety in senior Kim Royston, the Gophers' youth showed up front and in the secondary. The good news is Minnesota saved its best performance for the final game -- allowing just seven points and 160 yards to Illinois -- and should carry a bit of momentum into a crucial offseason.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B
The kicking game was one of Minnesota's strengths this season. Minnesota ranked second in the Big Ten in kickoff coverage and third in punt coverage. The Gophers were nonfactors on punt returns but finished fifth in the league in kick return average (23.4 ypr) and had a league-high two touchdowns as Jones and Duane Bennett both reached paydirt. Jordan Wettstein was perfect on field goals after relieving Chris Hawthorne, while the punting was average.
Minnesota looked like the nation's worst major-conference team until its breakthrough win against Iowa (the Gophers happily turned the title over to fellow Big Ten member Indiana). First-year coach Jerry Kill had a tough year both on the field and with his health issues, but both he and his players kept fighting. The Gophers did some nice things down the stretch and built a bit of momentum for the offseason. There's a chance to improve as players will be more familiar with Kill and his staff, but after back-to-back 3-9 seasons, Minnesota has a long way to go.
14hBrian Bennett and Josh Moyer
2dBrian Bennett and Austin Ward