Gophers show early improvement

Sophomore quarterback Adam Weber attempts a run last weekend in Minnesota’s 35-23 win over Montana State. The Gophers have one nonconference game left on their schedule, this weekend’s contest with Florida Atlantic, which beat Minnesota 42-39 last season.

Steve Maturen

Sophomore quarterback Adam Weber attempts a run last weekend in Minnesota’s 35-23 win over Montana State. The Gophers have one nonconference game left on their schedule, this weekend’s contest with Florida Atlantic, which beat Minnesota 42-39 last season.

The Minnesota football team is only three games into the 2008 season, but it seems safe to say that this yearâÄôs Gophers are just a bit different than the 2007 model. Start with the obvious: their win total. Minnesota (3-0 overall, 0-0 Big Ten) has already tripled the number of wins it had a season ago. And after three wins, the GophersâÄô mindset has changed. Both head coach Tim Brewster and sophomore quarterback Adam Weber played down SaturdayâÄôs 35-23 win over Montana State and expressed disappointment with the way the team played. âÄúI think weâÄôll come out of this game a little bit more fiery and know that we let ourselves and our fans down today a little bit because we just didnâÄôt play solid football,âÄù Weber said. Neither man was really allowed the luxury of talking that way about a win last year. What the struggles of 2007 did allow, however, was for Minnesota to learn from its mistakes. Weber, who was picked off 19 times last year , went back and watched each interception in the offseason to get a feel for what went wrong during the plays. He has yet to throw an interception in 2008. In fact, the Gophers have given the ball away only once this year : a fumble in the season opener against Illinois . And, perhaps more importantly, theyâÄôre taking it away on defense. âÄúThe turnover ratio is big,âÄù Brewster said. âÄúThis year itâÄôs much in our favor, as opposed to last year. You know, last year we were probably last in the country in turnover ratio.âÄù Well, not last, but close. In 2007, Minnesota was ranked 114th out of 119 Division I teams in turnover margin . So far this year, theyâÄôre ranked third with a plus-8 ratio. And arguably, itâÄôs been turnovers that have won the GophersâÄô last two games. At Bowling Green, Minnesota led by only four points early in the fourth quarter before free safety Tramaine Brock, a junior college transfer, intercepted a deep pass by FalconsâÄô quarterback Tyler Sheehan. That pick led to a touchdown, the Gophers forced two more fumbles and pulled away for a comfortable 42-17 victory. Then, with Montana State in town last weekend, MinnesotaâÄôs inexperienced secondary grabbed three interceptions that led to 14 points and a 12-point Gophers victory. Intriguingly, that which often killed Minnesota last year is saving the team this year. âÄúIf you look at the games last year âĦ turnover margin hurt us a lot,âÄù sophomore strong safety Kyle Theret said. âÄúWe were in a lot of close games last year, and with all our turnovers we lost the close games. This year weâÄôre winning all the close games, and I think the turnover margin has helped us immensely.âÄù Not only have the Gophers defenders been giving the offense the ball, theyâÄôve been setting up short fields. And the offense is capitalizing. Minnesota has been in the red zone 11 times this season and scored 11 touchdowns. ThatâÄôs efficiency; the Gophers are the only team in the country that has found the end zone on every trip inside the 20. Success like that doesnâÄôt come without a great deal of preparation. Because the defense has less field area to cover, finding holes becomes more difficult for an offense as it gets closer to the goal line. But Weber says offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar does his homework and has Minnesota ready to thread the defense. âÄúHe prepares us pretty well and has a good set of plays,âÄù Weber said. Plus, the Gophers have now become used to scoring in the red zone. âÄúI think weâÄôve established who we are when we get close to the end zone, that weâÄôre going to put the ball in the end zone,âÄù Weber said. âÄúWeâÄôre not going to settle for a field goal.âÄù