And now we have a losing streak with some challenging games on the horizon. The last two were thought to be ones where a win was rather attainable for the improved Gophers. But mistakes are being made that are insurmountable for an offense that is struggling against Big Ten competition. So with a couple days to reflect on the second loss and time to re-evaluate where this team/program is at, I think the perspective is rather unchanging from two weeks ago.
This team is better. This team is more capable of beating Big Ten opponents. But it still has some distance to go and it is not nearly good enough to win Big Ten games while making critical mistakes.
The mistakes have been made for much of the season, but they were good enough to get by on talent in the first few games. At UNLV Troy Stoudermire's muffed punt, Gray missing wide open receivers and the team's 11 penalties turned what easily should have been a two touchdown win (or more) into an overtime nail-biter. The Western Michigan and Syracuse games were ones where our opponent made costly mistakes eventually leading to Gopher wins.
Against Big Ten opponents we have actually played well...most of the time. Statements like, "we won the second half against Iowa and Northwestern" are true but don't get us any closer to a bowl game (or respectability). But I think it is an indication that things are close. Defense, offense and special teams have all contributed to the good and the bad this year.
DEFENSE - Northwestern came into Saturday averaging 330 yards per game and nearly 33 points. The Gopher defense held them to 275 and 13. 74 of those yards were on two long Venric Mark touchdown runs. Obviously those plays count and there are no do-overs in college football. But the point is that the defense played rather well on Saturday, certainly well enough to win. Unfortunately they made a few mistakes and they are not good enough overcome a few key blown assignments.
OFFENSE - Struggled in a number of areas this week. Seven fumbles is the stat that jumps out at you. They "only" lost two of those but the other five were drive killers. Even with the fumbles they still had an opportunity to score late in the 4th quarter but missed their opportunity with bad or dropped passes. Not good enough to win most any night but a play or two (or better yet, minus a mistake or two) and this offense scores enough points to win or at least go to OT.
SPECIAL TEAMS - Fumbling the opening kickoff put us in a hole just 10 seconds into the game. At Iowa the problem wasn't turnovers it was starting field position from the 8 or 10 on kickoff returns. This unit is not helping us out in anyway.
Combined these units worked together to give Northwestern every opportunity to win on Saturday. Strangely enough they also did enough to stay in the game. So after all of this rambling what is my perspective? I know that we are better and I think we are close to winning a handful of Big Ten games. Unfortunately we absolutely cannot afford many of the mistakes we are making. One bad (and it was pretty bad) quarter at Iowa outweighed the three good ones we played. Beating Northwestern in the second half cannot make up for a couple turnovers leading directly to big plays and points in the first. And the offense can move the ball a little but points are going to be very difficult when you fumble often, miss open receivers and stall drives with penalties.
Things need to be cleaned up, this isn't exactly a positive post. But I still feel as though things are closer (MUCH closer than they were a year ago). The box score doesn't show it but looking at the second half the defense really played well.
Unfortunately we have a losing streak. And there is potential for this streak to really get extended. The negativity will slowly mount after the positivity that was built after 4-0. Hopefully this year Jeffrick won't post about the University's faux decision to shut down the program. But keep the faith Gopher fans. This is not going to be a break-out year, it was never supposed to be. We are still going to lose a lot of Big Ten games, we've known that all along. But we are more competitive, we are capable of beating some good teams if we limit the mistakes.
Is being competitive good enough? Not for the long-term. Not even close. But in year two of rebuilding the program, it is the first step towards winning in the Big Ten. Improvement is a process, you don't go from bad to good in one year. You build. And we are building.