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Wednesday, October 15, 2008
Midseason report: Minnesota Golden Gophers

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

MINNESOTA (6-1, 2-1 Big Ten)

It was reasonable to expect improvement from Minnesota, especially with a defense that set team records for ineptitude in 2007. But few could have foreseen the Gophers winning six of their first seven games to become bowl eligible on Oct. 11. Tim Brewster is the clear choice for Big Ten Coach of the Year at this point, and if a Coordinator of the Year award could be handed out, it would go to defensive guru Ted Roof. The Gophers' secret can be found in their turnover margin. They lead the nation in takeaways (20) and rank second nationally in average margin (plus-1.71) after finishing 114th last fall (minus-1.25).

Offensive MVP -- Eric Decker has become the Big Ten's top wide receiver and one of the best in the country. He ranks third nationally in receiving yards (111.7 ypg) and fourth in receptions (11.47 rpg). As Brewster frequently reminds reporters, Decker's tremendous blocking skills have sparked Minnesota's rushing attack. Decker has five or more receptions in every game and has eclipsed 80 receiving yards in all but one contest this fall. Quarterback Adam Weber also deserves to be recognized.

Defensive MVP -- Willie VanDeSteeg's wrist has healed, and opposing ball-carries are paying the price this fall. The senior defensive end headlines a much-improved Gophers defense with 11 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and a blocked kick. He turned in one of the nation's top single-game defensive performances last Saturday at Illinois, forcing two Juice Williams turnovers that sealed the Gophers' win. Junior college arrivals Tramaine Brock and Traye Simmons also merit mentions here.

What's next -- The team already has exceeded expectations, and with three of the final five games at home, a decent bowl berth is certainly within reach. Minnesota's bye week comes at a good time because of some lingering injuries, but teams have struggled following the off week and the Gophers need another strong performance against struggling Purdue on Oct. 25. Minnesota finishes with rivalry games against Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa and would love to add a jug, an axe or a bronze pig to its trophy case.