Gophers enter toughest stretch of the season

Jack Satzinger

 

After the Gophers were upset by Illinois last month, head coach Jerry Kill could see his players needed a break from football.  

“You can tell when kids are fatigued a little bit. We needed to get them back and playing fast,” Kill said, adding the team’s bye week came at the right time. “I think they needed it from a mental capacity.”

If Minnesota’s players were lethargic after a three-game stretch against some of the Big Ten’s worst teams — Northwestern, Purdue and Illinois — they should be absolutely exhausted by the time November comes to an end.

The Gophers’ next four games feature an Iowa team that’s manhandled them the past two seasons and three ranked opponents: No. 13 Ohio State, No. 15 Nebraska and No. 25 Wisconsin.

Kill said he tries not to think about the daunting games Minnesota has left, but Gophers players started looking forward to the four-game meat grinder of a stretch before the season started.

“That last stretch right there is your focus point. It’s fun,” quarterback Mitch Leidner said at Big Ten media days. “I’m looking forward to that. That’s going to be good competition and I’m really excited.”

Minnesota’s loss to Illinois hit hard. The players took last Sunday, Monday and Tuesday off, which offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover described as a “grieving process.”

Now comes the hard part.

Defensive lineman Cameron Botticelli said November’s stretch of games will define the Gophers season.

“What we do this month will be the guidelines for what we’re doing at the end of the year,” he said.

If Minnesota rises up to the challenge and wins a few games, four weeks from now it could be looking at a solid bowl game like the Outback Bowl or the San Francisco Bowl.

Or it could get beat in the trenches by Iowa for the third-straight season, fall to juggernaut Ohio State, lose at an explosive Nebraska team, fall to Wisconsin for the 11th straight season, and spend Christmas in Detroit for the Quick Lane Bowl after losing its last five games of the year.

“It comes down to the month of November and how we play in November,” defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said.

Wolitarsky doubtful, Lauer questionable

Sophomore receiver Drew Wolitarsky made a 35-yard reception in the loss to Illinois, but sprained his right ankle while being tackled.

“I don’t think he’ll play [against Iowa],” Kill said.

Rarely-used backups Logan Hutton and Eric Carter may have to step up if Wolitarsky, who was on crutches and a walking boot after the game, is out for an extended period of time.

Kill could also fill the void by pulling a redshirt on one of his talented young receivers like Melvin Holland.

Injuries have hit Minnesota hard all season, particularly at offensive line. Redshirt sophomore Ben Lauer hasn’t practiced over the past week and Jonah Pirsig could start in his place against Iowa.

“We’ve had a revolving door at offensive line,” Kill said. “Jonah’s improved every week.”