- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Record: 4-2, 0-2 Big Ten
If Minnesota does not win another game all season, it still will have improved on last year's 3-9 record. Not that anyone around the Golden Gophers would be OK with that.
This is a team that has a bowl game in its sights for the first time since the 2009 season, and it would register as a disappointment now to fall short. Minnesota has shown much improvement during Jerry Kill's second year in overall playmaking ability on offense, in the trenches and in defending the pass. Those strides led to a 4-0 start. But that progress stalled once Big Ten play arrived, as the Gophers were blown out at Iowa and lost at home to Northwestern.
There's no secret as to what has gone wrong in the losing streak. Kill's defense has been unable to stop the run, allowing 390 rushing yards combined the past two games. And the injury to starting quarterback MarQueis Gray has robbed the offense of its main threat. Gray was able to return from a high ankle sprain and play during the Northwestern game, and he gave the team a spark with his rushing ability. But Gray was re-injured during that game, and his status going forward is cloudy.
While Max Shortell is a capable passer, defenses are left guessing whenever the mobile Gray is on the field. The Gophers need him back and healthy, and they need to figure out why they've been so easily gashed by the ground game in Big Ten play. Kill's health -- he suffered another seizure after the Northwestern game last week -- is unfortunately also an issue again.
There is still plenty of time for Minnesota to get to six wins, if not more, and games against Purdue at home and Illinois on the road look highly winnable. But as they say in baseball, hardest three outs to get are the last ones. The Gophers hope getting the last two wins this year doesn't prove too big a challenge.
Offensive MVP: WR A.J. Barker. Gray would likely be the team MVP had he stayed healthy. The offense desperately needed a big-play threat in the receiving game, and walk-on junior Barker surprisingly provided that. His 22 catches and 406 yards are more than double the amount of any other Gopher, and he's added four touchdowns. Barker is averaging 18.5 yards per catch.
Defensive MVP: DT Ra'Shede Hageman. The 6-foot-6, 301-pounder has finally blossomed into a force for the Gophers defense. Defensive end D.L. Wilhite has also been good, giving the team a much-needed pass rusher off the edge, while safety Derrick Wells has helped stabilize the secondary. But there's no replacing an effective interior defensive lineman.
MINNESOTA Record: 4-2, 0-2 Big TenIf Minnesota does not win another game all season, it still will have improved on last year's 3-9 record. Not that anyone around the Golden Gophers would be OK with that.