We're back for another round of report cards today as we put every Big Ten team's regular season under the microscope. Minnesota plays its bowl game tomorrow. But first, the Gophers get their grades.
Things looked promising early in the year, as MarQueis Gray began to fulfill his potential as a dual-threat quarterback and some more options emerged in the passing game. But the Gophers' offense quickly crashed back to earth as Gray got hurt, leading to his eventual move to receiver to make way for true freshman quarterback Philip Nelson. Other injuries on the offensive line and particularly at receiver, where leading pass-catcher A.J. Barker quit the team after a dispute over his rehab, left offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover searching for duct tape to hold his group together. Minnesota exploded for 44 points against Purdue on Oct. 27, but that proved to be an aberration; the Gophers averaged a measly 13.3 points per game in their seven other Big Ten contests and failed to score more than 17 points in eight of their final nine games. They finished 111th nationally in total offense. Running back Donnell Kirkwood rushed for 849 yards but was practically invisible in the final two games.
The improvement in Minnesota's defense over 2011 was obvious. The Gophers finished fifth in the league in total defense while allowing fewer than 24 points per game, and they ranked No. 11 nationally in defending the pass. Ra'Shede Hageman became a major impact player at defensive tackle, and end D.L. Wilhite had 8.5 sacks, good for second in the Big Ten. Michael Carter blossomed into one of the league's top cornerbacks as a senior, while safety Derrick Wells played great early in the year. Minnesota was not a dominant defense and gave up too many points to some of the better offenses in the league (Wisconsin, Michigan, Nebraska). But the unit became more than respectable this season and helped carry the team through its offensive struggles.
Special teams: C-minus
The return of Troy Stoudermire didn't really do much to improve Minnesota's kick return game, which ranked eighth in the Big Ten. The Gophers also didn't fare too well in punting (99th nationally in net punting), and Jordan Wettstein missed eight of his 21 field goal attempts. Without a lot of room for error, this team needs to find more ways to be effective in the kicking game.
After a 4-0 start, Minnesota went just 2-6 and was barely competitive in three of its final four games. Yet this team easily earns a passing grade simply by winning enough games to make it to its first bowl since 2009 in Year 2 under Jerry Kill. There was undeniable progress, and perhaps the Gophers could have done even better than 6-6 with some better health luck on the offensive side. They had to juggle three starting quarterbacks, but getting Nelson starting experience should prove valuable down the road. The second half of the season pointed out a glaring need for more skill position players, but the building process appears to be on schedule in Minneapolis.
Previous report cards: