Gophers hope November losses are in the past

Aaron Blake

When the clock ran out in Saturday’s 55-7 Minnesota football win over Indiana, the proverbial monkey leapt from the Gophers’ back to the worn Metrodome turf, ambled up the concrete stairs and strolled out the gates with the 45,398 in attendance.

Figuratively speaking, of course.

Saturday’s victory broke a four-game November losing streak and was just the second win for the 24th-ranked Gophers in their last nine November contests. Minnesota (8-2, 4-2 Big Ten) hopes to continue the near-flawless play displayed against the Hoosiers as the team ventures into its final two regular season games.

“Of course there are some things we have to work on and look at a couple things we did wrong and get it right for Wisconsin (on Saturday),” defensive tackle Darrell Reid said. “But this was definitely something to build on.”

Memories of a 0-4 November last season linger for Minnesota players. They have talked about a “Remember November” philosophy they started during summer practices and have carried into the stretch run this year.

Last year’s final-month struggles turned a 7-1 team with big bowl aspirations into a 7-5 Music City Bowl invitee.

But double-digit losses to Ohio State, Michigan, Iowa and Wisconsin didn’t faze coach Glen Mason as much as one might think.

“We had a bad November last year – probably not as bad as most people think, though,” Mason said. “We lost four games but we probably played a little bit better – against awful good teams with a young football team – than a lot of people give us credit for. But that’s OK.”

Mason said the players’ focus on the 11th month of the year hasn’t been placed on them by the coaches. But he also acknowledged that it can’t be a bad thing for the team’s psyche.

Though Indiana hardly put up an effort Saturday, it was a late-season win for the Gophers and inspired some optimism.

“It kind of gives us our confidence and swagger back,” quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq said. “We’re definitely going to need it in our next game. (The Badgers) have been playing tough all season. To have this confidence back is something that’s going to work for us.”

With a win Saturday, the Gophers would win nine games in a season for the first time since a 10-1 campaign in 1905.

But one win doesn’t cut it as far as the players and coaches are concerned. To have a chance at one of the Big Ten’s three New Year’s Day bowl games, Minnesota must finish this November unblemished as it did in 1999.

The team finished the regular season ranked 12th in the nation that year and earned a date with Oregon in the Sun Bowl.

But even two more wins will not guarantee the team will play after fans hang their 2004 calendars. A berth in the Rose Bowl, Capital One Bowl or Outback Bowl would be Minnesota’s first January game since 1961.

And as Minnesota prepares for Wisconsin (6-3, 3-2) at home and No. 10 Iowa (7-2, 2-2) in Iowa City, Iowa, on Nov. 15, safety and co-captain Eli Ward and his teammates know they’ve got something to prove to themselves and their coach.

“Coach Mason says we’re a good team right now,” Ward said after Saturday’s game. “We’re not satisfied with that. We want to be great. In order to be great and go to a better bowl game, we have to win these last two games and then see what happens. Right now, we just have to stay focused. We’re determined to win out.”