A strong finish is all that’s left to play for

A strong finish is all that's left to play for

John Hageman

Weeks past the thought of a miraculous run to make a bowl game and just days after suffering a 52-10 drubbing at the hands of No. 11 Ohio State, one wonders what is left for the Gophers to play for.

The focus of many fans and others has been not on the games themselves, but who will take over the program next season on the heels of Tim BrewsterâÄôs midseason firing and the current eight-game losing streak.

But many players arenâÄôt looking that far ahead; they are just trying to salvage some pride out of the season.

âÄúWe donâÄôt want teams to come in and say, âÄòOh weâÄôre playing MinnesotaâÄô and itâÄôs just another game,âÄù running back DeLeon Eskridge said. âÄúWhen a cross country runner doesnâÄôt hit their mark âĦ they still finish the race. Sports in general, it shows pride and respect to just finish it out.âÄù

But the way the season has gone, the Gophers may limp to that finish line.

The final stretch of a forgettable season starts this weekend when the Gophers visit No. 14 Michigan State, who, before being blown out by No. 16 Iowa, won eight straight games and was in the driverâÄôs seat for a trip to the Rose Bowl or possibly a national championship.

But that loss and Ohio StateâÄôs win over the Gophers on Saturday put the Spartans and Buckeyes in a tie atop the Big Ten standings. Michigan State canâÄôt afford to overlook anyone for the rest of the season if they want to be in Pasadena in January.

Combine that with the fact that Michigan State is far improved and the Gophers have taken a considerable step back from their 42-34 home win over the Spartans last season, and the odds certainly donâÄôt stack up in MinnesotaâÄôs favor.

For the Gophers to avoid suffering the same fate that they did against Ohio State âÄî who may be just as talented as the Spartans âÄî a short-term memory will be necessary.

âÄúIf you go in thinking that the guy across from you is going to whip you all day, you might as well not show up,âÄù safety Kyle Theret said. âÄúSo we go in with confidence that we can play, knowing that weâÄôre D-I athletes too.âÄù

Theret and company will have the responsibility of accounting for Michigan StateâÄôs stockpile of athletes, including two of the conferenceâÄôs top-10 leading rushers in Edwin Baker and LeâÄôVeon Bell, along with seasoned quarterback Kirk Cousins.

On offense, senior quarterback Adam Weber will have to deal with a defense that interim head coach Jeff Horton estimates will blitz 50 percent of the time. Weber faced blitzes from all sides against Ohio State and was sacked a season-high five times.

âÄúYou have to account for a talented team that wants to heat it up a little bit,âÄù Weber said. âÄúBut when it comes down to it, as a quarterback I have to play better.âÄù

That self-criticism has been echoed by fans that have e-mailed Horton in recent weeks, pleading to see backup quarterback and wide receiver MarQueis Gray take the offensive reigns before he likely takes over that spot next season.

Horton has remained adamant that Weber gives the team the best chance to win, and while Weber agrees with him, he said the fansâÄô clamoring for a change is fair.

âÄú[The fans] want to win,âÄù Weber said. âÄúI think that maybe theyâÄôre tired of seeing me out there and they want to see what else is going to happen. So I understand that when youâÄôre not winning, and not everyoneâÄôs playing up to par, the head coach and the quarterback are probably the first two to get pointed at.âÄù

The debate between starting Weber or Gray is nothing new. The two were locked in a battle for the starting job during spring practice and many believed Gray had the talent to start right away as a freshman.

But the confidence Horton has in Weber, despite how little the Gophers have left to play for, has given him some hope that in these last three games of his final season the Gophers will find some redemption.

âÄúIâÄôve got three weeks left, and IâÄôm going to give it my best, just like I have been,âÄù Weber said. âÄúBut IâÄôll give you even more so that we can leave here with a smile on our face knowing that we did something, we overcame some tough adversity and weâÄôre leave here on a high note.âÄù