- Austin Ward, ESPN Staff Writer
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MINNEAPOLIS -- If all Minnesota wanted was to feel good about the progress it made, that would be easy.
The Gophers traded blows with the eventual national champions, they competed for a division title into the final weekend of the regular season, and there was plenty of evidence on film that showed just how far the rebuilding job has come under coach Jerry Kill.
But the work isn’t yet complete, and the only thing that really stands out to veteran cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun when he relives last season is a handful of plays that kept the program from actually reaching its goals instead of merely coming close. At times that might be a silver lining showing that the Gophers are heading in the right direction, but throughout practice this spring and heading into summer conditioning, that typically hasn’t been the interpretation by those in the program.
“I think about those five or 10 plays a lot,” Boddy-Calhoun said. “The ironic thing about those plays is that we controlled them. It was something that we did wrong to make those things happen. It’s not like somebody just came and made a miraculous play on us, it was either bad technique, bad alignment or messed up the assignment.
“If you want to look at some positivity behind it, you can say if we control those five or 10 plays, then we should be competing for the division, no doubt. But for me, it still hurts. We know how close we were. You could just taste the Big Ten, and it slipped right through the cracks of your hands. It still leaves a bitter taste in our mouth.”
The Gophers know they have a chance to claim a landmark victory in the opener at home against TCU, which figures to bring along a top-five ranking for a prime-time matchup on Thursday, Sept. 3.
But the three steps to getting over the hump against the Horned Frogs or completing an upset instead of merely scaring a team such as Ohio State already have been laid out for the Gophers, and it’s not that complicated.
Contain the quarterback
When everything is going according to plan, Minnesota’s toughness, aggressiveness and talent on defense can make it difficult for any opponent to move the ball.
But if there’s a mobile quarterback on the other side of the line of scrimmage, the Gophers had a tendency to come apart at the seams and the results often weren’t pretty.
“There was one thing that we always had trouble with as a defense, and we knew it -- scrambling quarterbacks,” linebacker De'Vondre Campbell said. “Every time we played a team that had a quarterback who was generally good with his feet and could make plays out of the pocket once a play broke down, that’s what we struggled with.”
Among the handful of plays on Minnesota’s tape of close calls, Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett’s 86-yard scamper through the heart of the defense provides the perfect illustration of mental breakdowns and how poorly the Gophers handle an athletic quarterback capable of exploiting any mistakes. But that wasn’t the only example.
In the loss to TCU, Minnesota allowed Trevone Boykin to pile up 92 yards on the ground. In a stunning defeat at Illinois, Reilly O’Toole paced the rushing attack for the Illini in a performance that included a 28-yard carry and a touchdown. And after that lengthy scoring rush, Barrett finished with 189 yards rushing to lead the Buckeyes in a game that would only be decided by a touchdown.
“Those kind of things are unacceptable,” Campbell said. “We were probably a total of maybe 10 plays away from playing in the Big Ten championship last year, it was just little things like that. Gap assignments or letting somebody get out of the pocket when you have contain on them, and things like that can really cost you a game.”
Make the right decision
The Gophers are intent on pushing the tempo. But as the number of plays increases, so do the chances of turnovers.
That puts the onus on quarterback Mitch Leidner to be smart and take care of the ball, and that made his top priority this spring relatively simply by quarterback standards.
“It’s been just making good decisions with the football,” Leidner said. “I felt like my arm got a lot better in the offseason, and now it just comes down to going through your progressions and reads, either looking for a checkdown or throwing it away or take off and scramble.
“I have a lot of confidence in my arm strength and the throws I can make out there. But when something doesn’t go right or something is covered, get off of it and make something else happen.”
Leidner has that ability with his legs, but trying to extend plays as a rusher isn’t the only way to limit mistakes on offense. And while there were worse interception ratios in the Big Ten than the one he posted a year ago by tossing a pick every 30 attempts, sometimes just throwing a ball into the stands can be the best way to boost that number and live to fight another down.
“His next step is, hey, sometimes things are dead, just throw it away,” quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski said. “Sometimes it’s not there and it’s not going to be there, and he wants to make a bad thing better when a bad thing is just bad.”
The difference between champions and contenders can be small, and one thing that usually sets apart the former from the latter is consistent effort from week to week and for entire games, regardless of the opponent. And, once more, Minnesota hardly needs a reminder of that after an October loss at Illinois nearly cost the Gophers any chance of playing for the Big Ten West crown.
“Coach Kill is preaching a lot about playing 60-minute football, and I think it has a lot to do with those few plays,” Campbell said. “‘Sixty minutes of football’ was kind of our motto this spring going forward because we were a few plays away in each game that could have made our season completely different.
“He’s always pushing us. Everybody, all of our coaching staff is really pushing us and trying to keep it on our minds that we need to play 60 minutes of football because if we do there is really no limit to what we can accomplish as a team. We do have a really good team, and I feel like we don’t get enough credit because of Minnesota’s recent history of not having those good teams. But I honestly feel like we can compete with anybody if given the opportunity.”
There’s another big one waiting for the Gophers when September rolls around. The next step for the program is erasing its missed chances and any reason to try to find silver linings along with it.