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Monday, December 23, 2013
Season report card: Minnesota

By Brian Bennett

The red pens are out and we're handing out final grades for each Big Ten team's regular season. Teams earn marks for offense, defense, special teams and overall play.

Step up and get your grades, Minnesota.

Offense: C-minus

The Gophers ranked just 10th in the Big Ten in scoring (26.4 ppg) and 11th in total offense. Their passing attack was the worst in the league and one of the least productive in the nation. The team juggled quarterbacks during the first half of the season, flipping between Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner, both of whom proved better runners than passers most of the time. Receiver was once again a sore spot for Minnesota, particularly after Derrick Engel hurt his knee in November. Freshmen Maxx Williams, Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones showed promise but also showed they were freshmen. An inability to move the ball through the air effectively killed the team's chances of winning its final two games against Wisconsin and Michigan State.

That's the bad news. The good news is that the Gophers definitely had an offensive identity. They became the physical, run-first team that they previewed in the Texas Bowl last season. Junior David Cobb came out of nowhere to rush for 1,111 yards, sixth most in the Big Ten. Minnesota's offensive line paved the way for 200 rushing yards per game. Though limited in options, offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover maximized his strengths by pounding the ball on the ground and controlling the clock.

The offense was at its best against Nebraska and Indiana, when Minnesota scored a combined 76 points in those two games. But the lack of a legitimate passing game remains a concern going forward.

Defense: B

Minnesota had one of the more underrated defenses in the Big Ten. Opponents managed just 22.3 points per game. The defense struggled early in league play against Iowa and Michigan but got much better as the season went on. In the final three games, Minnesota held Penn State to 10 points, Wisconsin to 20 and Michigan State to 14 -- all well below those teams' averages.

Ra'Shede Hageman developed into the star many expected at defensive tackle. The attention he commanded up the middle cleared the way for Theiren Cockran to register 7.5 sacks, second best in the league. The secondary was a strength again, thanks to the play of Brock Vereen, Eric Murray and, when healthy, Derrick Wells. That Tracy Claeys managed to keep this defense above average while also serving as interim head coach was an impressive feat.

Special teams: B-plus

Minnesota was mostly better than league average on special teams. The Gophers ranked fourth on kickoff returns, fifth in punt returns, seventh in punting and fifth in kickoff coverage. Peter Mortell finished third in punting average, while Marcus Jones was third in kickoff returns. Chris Hawthorne was the Big Ten special teams player of the week after making a pair of field goals against Nebraska.

Overall: A

While the individual categories might not necessarily add up to an A, Minnesota was a perfect example of a collective whole ending up greater than its parts. The season could have easily come apart after head coach Jerry Kill took his leave of absence to deal with epilepsy after missing the Michigan game. Instead, the team bonded together and won its next four Big Ten games, something that hadn't happened in the previous 40 years. Kill talked about needing to need a notch a signature league victory this season, and the Gophers responded by beating Nebraska and Penn State. The team even entered the Top 25 in November after reaching 8-2. Losing the last two games was a minor bummer, but few people expected Minnesota to win eight games this season, especially given Kill's situation. The efforts and achievements this season deserve an A.