Heading into the final month of the regular season, Minnesota’s football team finds itself in an uncomfortably familiar position.
Saturday’s loss to Michigan State leaves the Gophers with a 6-2 overall record and smack-dab in the middle of the Big Ten standings at 2-2.
While its second straight loss will likely put a muzzle on the team’s Rose Bowl hopes, many of Minnesota’s preseason goals remain within reach. The Gophers still have a reasonable shot at playing in a New Year’s Day bowl game and finishing with a winning conference record.
But a more difficult challenge for Minnesota players might be forgetting about the team’s performance in the final month of recent seasons after equally fast starts.
After eight games last year, the Gophers were 7-1 before four straight losses landed them in the Music City Bowl.
In 2000, Minnesota was 5-2 in the middle of October. But three losses in their final four games sent the Gophers to the Micronpc.com Bowl.
“It was hard watching all the other teams we could have beaten playing in a Jan. 1 bowl game,” senior safety Eli Ward said. “This year I’m in a leadership position, so I’m going to just make sure everybody stays positive.”
Maintaining that optimism will be easier said than done, given Minnesota’s recent November shortcomings. It’s been four years since the Gophers have completed the season’s final month without a three-game losing streak.
Minnesota coach Glen Mason, who has a combined 7-17 record with the Gophers in the final month of Big Ten play, remains confident the 2003 team will be an exception.
For that to happen, Mason and the Gophers will need more consistent efforts in every phase of the game – offense, defense and special teams.
Against Michigan State, a Minnesota running game averaging nearly 300 yards per contest was stymied by the Spartans’ defense. The Gophers managed only 148 yards on the ground Saturday.
Minnesota’s special teams also played poorly, fumbling the opening kickoff and allowing a 100-yard kickoff return at the end of the first half.
The week prior, against Michigan, it was the Gophers’ pass defense that underachieved as Wolverines quarterback John Navarre shredded the secondary. Navarre finished with 353 yards passing and two touchdown passes.
“I’m not concerned about the state of our football team, but it’s an ongoing process,” Mason said. “You fix the washing machine, then the dryer doesn’t work. Then you fix the dryer and the stove doesn’t work. Any day that they all work then you’ve got something.”
Household appliances aside, the Gophers’ team psyche is desperately in need of a win this Saturday against Illinois, lest they start to assume a “here-we-go-again” mentality.
“We have four more games left and we’re going to come together as a team,” wide receiver Tony Patterson said. “We’re not going to hang our heads. There’s a lot more football left.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge for this year’s team will also become its greatest advantage. With last year’s late-season collapse still a recent memory for many players on the 2003 roster, the Gophers are hoping that the experience has prepared them for success the second, or third, time around.
“(Last year) once we lost two, it started to snowball downhill,” Ward said. “But this year we’re not going to fall into that.
“We have the leadership now, people who have been there and we know how to handle situations like this.”
Or at the very least, they know how not to handle it.