Success defined differently in ’09

Considering the road ahead and already passed, 7-5 would be a step forward for Minnesota.

Gophers FB vs Purdue

Matt Mead

Gophers FB vs Purdue

Austin Cumblad

A 7-5 record can mean two very different things. ThereâÄôs 7-5 circa 2008: Coming off of a 1-11 season, Minnesota came flying out of the gates, cruised through a light non-conference schedule and won three of its first four Big Ten games (the loss was to then-No. 14 Ohio State, a team that nearly won the Fiesta Bowl). Sitting at 7-1 and No. 20 in the nation, the Gophers looked poised to trample a Northwestern team forced to start a relatively inexperienced backup quarterback. Instead, that backup, Mike Kafka, played like a veteran and the game remained in balance until a 48-yard interception return by Wildcats safety Brendan Smith tipped the scales in NorthwesternâÄôs favor with just 11 seconds left in the game . The 24-17 homecoming loss proved a tipping point in the GophersâÄô season as well. They failed to win another game, finished the regular season 7-5 and were thoroughly dominated by Kansas in a 42-21 Insight Bowl defeat. MinnesotaâÄôs six-game improvement from 2007 to 2008 was almost entirely forgotten in the wake of its late-season collapse. The 7-5 record was a disappointment. But what would 7-5 mean in 2009? The Gophers are 4-3 overall and 2-2 in the Big Ten after a 20-0 loss at No. 13 Penn State over the weekend. Their other two losses have been at home to then-No. 8 California and Wisconsin, which entered the game 4-0. In MinnesotaâÄôs final five weeks, road games loom against No. 19 Ohio State and No. 6 Iowa. A win against the Buckeyes or the Hawkeyes would be defining for third-year head coach Tim Brewster and the Gophers football program. Plus, with three winnable home games against Michigan State, Illinois and South Dakota State remaining, an eight-win regular season would become a real possibility. Minnesota hasnâÄôt done that since going 9-3 in 2003 . An 8-4 record is an obvious improvement on 2008. ItâÄôs another win. ItâÄôs a better bowl game. ItâÄôs a .500 record in the Big Ten for the first time since 2005. But again, what about 7-5? Matching last seasonâÄôs win total is not an obvious improvement, but by most accounts, 7-5 in 2009 reads as more impressive than 7-5 in 2008. To date, the three teams Minnesota has lost to this year are a combined 15-5. The Gophers avenged last yearâÄôs loss to Northwestern with a 35-24 win in Evanston, Ill., and coasted to a 35-20 win against a Purdue team that just upset Ohio State 26-18 . But the road wonâÄôt be getting any easier. Though the Boilermakers showed the Big Ten that the Buckeyes arenâÄôt invincible, Ohio State is still a force to be reckoned with, perhaps even more so after being upset. Michigan State has won three straight and is tied for second place in the conference. Iowa is atop the Big Ten and one of seven remaining unbeaten teams in the country. Back-to-back games against a reeling Illinois team and Football Championship Series opponent South Dakota State are the lightest parts of MinnesotaâÄôs remaining schedule. The journey to seven wins clearly has its obstacles. The Gophers have work to do on both sides of the ball to get there. Junior quarterback Adam WeberâÄôs production has fallen dramatically as of late. In the past two weeks, heâÄôs thrown for a combined 175 yards, no touchdowns and three interceptions. In both games, he struggled to find senior wide receiver Eric Decker, who still ranks No. 1 in the Big Ten in receiving yards-per-game despite not catching a pass from halftime against Purdue until the third quarter against Penn State. MinnesotaâÄôs run game must find some consistency as well. ItâÄôs ground attack has been essentially all-or-nothing in 2009. Case in point, the 207 rushing yards and four touchdowns it piled up against the Boilermakers two weeks ago, compared to 37 last weekend against the Nittany Lions. Defensively, the 2009 Gophers are far less opportunistic than the 2008 model. Minnesota is allowing opponents to convert on third down 51 percent of the time. And though the Gophers have forced 13 turnovers this year, through seven games in 2008, they had forced 20, tied for third in the NCAA.