After successfully leading the Gophers back to bowl eligibility in his second season, the expectations for Jerry Kill's 2013 Minnesota squad were simple: a step up in the Big Ten standings, a signature upset and some of that Kill "Year 3" magic.
Most importantly, we needed to see signs that the program was making The Turn:
Still, one can’t help but think that if Kill’s program magic will begin manifesting itself in the win column, it would first appear this upcoming season. Signs of progress, such as competing with the likes of Michigan, Nebraska, Wisconsin or Michigan State into the 4th quarter and putting the team in place for an upset. Or perhaps it arrives in a more general manner, like playing with greater consistency throughout the season, especially on the road. Whatever the signs, Gopher fans should start to see The Turn in the upcoming season, or they likely won’t at all.
By making history several times over en route to the team's best season since 2003, the Gophers took the requisite steps to move the program forward.
And accompanying The Turn, expectations of Kill's Gophers have been reset.
When I sat down to write the 2013 season preview back in July, I was struck by a creeping thought that on the surface sounded quite absurd: that the makeup of the team reminded me of the 1999 Gopher squad that came out of nowhere. Admittedly, it was an act of optimistic projection.
If the Gophers are to make the same upward turn, the above listed 2013 players will have to perform like their 1999 analogs. On the surface, this sounds like a ridiculous premise. Still, it's not that ridiculous, and certainly no less asinine than optimists would have appeared back in the summer of '99. The Gophers have talent, moreso than any previous season of the Kill era. Whether or not that talent can manifest in a breakthrough season will depend on these key figures, though a huge part of fan confidence is banking on Kill's track record at similar points in a program's arc.
I know better than to draw equivalences like this, since those comparisons are invariably wrong due to the unpredictable and unrepeatable nature of college football. The circumstances surrounding the program in 1999 were completely different than those of 2013. That '99 team was the vital catalyst that redefined the image of Minnesota football; including that season, the Gophers have gone to bowl games 11 of 15 years and have since returned to campus after a 25 year failed stint in the Metrodome. Short of winning the Legends Division, there was little Kill's team could do this season to equal or best the impact of that fateful team.
The 2013 Gophers came close, however, with a fun and memorable season of their own. And they did so by overcoming adversity at each step along the way.
I don't think it's hyperbole to state this season was a smashing success by almost any standards. Predicted to finish last in the Legends Division by scribes and viewed upon from smart outsiders with a reasonable amount of skepticism for anything beyond 6 wins, notching more regular season victories than any season since 2003 is an undiminished accomplishment. Beating Nebraska for the first time in 53 years, or snapping a forty year long streak of futility by winning 4 consecutive Big Ten games? Those are watershed moments worth celebrating.
About the only thing left on the table was beating Iowa or Wisconsin, though the trophy case won't sit empty until 2016... and we broke that monstrosity to boot!
Most important, however, was how these Gophers accomplished this program turnaround. They improved as the season progressed. They dealt with and overcame adversity. They played tough, and smart. They made key plays when they needed to. And, above all, they made teams beat them versus finding new and excruciating ways to beat themselves. All of this feels foreign to long time supporters of Minnesota football, and yet here we all were, watching our squad do the things good teams do. It's different and welcoming to be rewarded with meaningful football games in November.
That's the Jerry Kill effect, and the surest sign yet that the program has started to make The Turn.
There are other, more tangible indicators of how the program is changing. Like a defense that only allowed 2 Big Ten teams to score more than two TDs in a game. Only 1 conference game that was non-competitive in the fourth quarter. A running back with 1,100 yards and six 100 yard games, most since the celebrated duo of Laurence Maroney and Marion Barber III. 2,400 rushing yards for the first time since 2005. A victory over a ranked foe. Wins against the two of the Big Ten's "helmet" schools. It's often stated that not all progress is linear, though for Kill's Minnesota program, linear is exactly what we're seeing: The Gophers have improved their win total by a least 2 games each subsequent year under Jerry, and now have as many Big Ten wins in three seasons (8) versus the entirety of the Brewster era.
All of this, mind you, with an offense playing only 3 seniors and underclassmen occupying over the half the depth chart. Maybe that's why Jerry can hardly contain his excitement for 2014, as he's repeatedly stated that for how well his kids are playing now, they'll be even better a year from now.
Perhaps that's why I can't get too worked up about missed opportunities against Iowa, Wisconsin or Michigan State, since I believe Jerry rerouted the trajectory of the program upward and those young players will cash in those opportunities in the future. We're not quite there yet. If the Gophers converted better on offense against 4 of the 5 toughest defenses in the conference, they'd already be one of the Big Ten's best teams. 2013 wasn't about becoming a great team overnight. It was unexpected, and thus, fun. These are seasons to relish for exactly what they were versus the lament of "what ifs?"
2013 represented a young team evolving into the program Kill and his long tenured staff envisioned when he took the job back in December of 2010. A team that built off the strides made in 2012 by reaching bowl eligibility and forged an offensive identity, capped by "shi(f)ts and motions" and the signature Golden-I formation put on display at the Meineke Car Care Bowl against Texas Tech. It was precisely that commitment to the running game, incorporating motion and reestablishing the jet sweep as an offensive weapon that ended the 16 game drought against the Cornhuskers. A team that took on the tenacious and relentless personality of their head coach, refusing to sulk and lose the disciplined edge when faced with countless turns where they could have eschewed mental toughness. After a bogus offensive pass interference penalty negated a touchdown against Northwestern. Down 10 early to Nebraska. Giving back the lead to Indiana in the 4th quarter.
And especially after their leader's health forced him to take a temporary leave of absence to gain control over his epilepsy.
This was a mentally and physically tough brood that believed they could go toe-to-toe with anyone in the Big Ten. For much of the conference schedule, they were right. For their efforts, they placed themselves in position to have a chance against all but one foe in the fourth quarter. They became that "tough out," a team that cannot be overlooked or expected to be dispatched with ease.
They did so as a team, relatively lacking in star power compared to other Big Ten squads. Sure, RaShede Hageman will earn well deserved First Team All B1G honors and hear his name called on the first two days of the 2014 NFL Draft. Zac Epping and/or Josh Campion should make their way onto a second team All B1G list, as could Eric Murray. David Cobb, fresh off the first 1,000 yard rushing season for a Gopher since 2006, will likely net honorable mention in what is a loaded Big Ten running back crop. Thieren Cockran, with 7.5 sacks and 4 forced fumbles, should do the same. Still, this group was about becoming more than the sum of their parts, having fun and enjoying the moment. That fast and loose attitude served the team well, especially after consecutive losses to open the B1G season and the uncertainty of their head coach's health just as easily could have derailed their season.
But it didn't. The team turned into something else, and in doing so, started to make The Turn.
In the moments after a burly collection of fullbacks macerated the Cornhuskers and notched the biggest home victory for the program in at least a decade, you could feel the confidence exuding from their pores. They had not just beaten Nebraska, they had stomped and bullied them. And they knew they were the better team. Better. Than Nebraska. Minnesota.
It was then, after the prophetic win, one could also feel a shift in tone. A tremor in force resulting from imbalances caused by an insurgent force striking back against their former rulers. The Gophers were setting their aim higher.
"A year ago we celebrated the sixth win because it was late in the season. We had Nebraska and Michigan State left a year ago, but now we have our sixth win in October and we can reset our goals. We're going to work hard and set out to do something better than what we have done in the past."
"We are starting to believe and that’s all that really needs to be said right now. We have the confidence rolling from week to week and we are finally starting to realize how good we really can be."
As unsure I am whether the players realized it, I'm equally certain the coaches understood the gravity of the moment well, considering they've done exactly this time and time again. Things have changed in Dinkytown. Expectations for the Gopher football program have been reset, and elevated.
You don't just pound one of the sport's most historic programs into submission, declare you knew all along who the better team was, then slip back into fringe bowl purgatory. When Wisconsin says they needed to match your physicality - WISCONSIN! - you can't take a step backward. After becoming just the second team all season to rush for over 100 yards against Michigan State, you need to do what it takes to reach the next level as a program.
The alternative is a scenario I'd prefer not to address. Take a gander down the Legends Division standings at Northwestern as an example of what happens when a program doesn't seize momentum. Sure, injuries derailed a strong season for the Wildcats, though most pundits believed Pat Fitzgerald had the program turned around a corner. Instead, they have slipped back to the pack considerably and must fight just to tread water next season.
Jerry Kill can already sense it. He knows his young program, with freshmen accounting for 40% of receiving production, will be better next season. They need to be, because a more balanced attack against the best defenses in the conference is what it will take for the program to contend. Moreover, that is what will be expected, since people already know what the Gophers do best: playing tough, physical football.
Fans, media and, frankly, coaches will look at what the Gophers bring back in 2014 and balance that with what was already achieved. If they can beat Nebraska and Penn State, hang with Wisconsin and Michigan State and win 8 games with such a green offense, they should do much better with another 50+ practices under their belt. They've been building towards 2014 for the last two seasons. They will be loaded with depth and experience along both lines, in the backfield and in the secondary. Barring a decision to declare, David Cobb - the team's workhorse - will also return. Talented offensive weapons like Berkley Edwards will be available. And, of course, there's the 2014 recruiting class - a crop that will give Kill, as he puts it, the 3 full classes needed to turn a program around.
More intangibly, enthusiasm from the fanbase and positivity from the local media peaked in 2013 far beyond anything seen in the State for years. Those fans, long guarded with a foot towards ambivalence out of self-preservation, will want more. After years of waiting, they'll want to see a contender in Dinkytown. They'll expect a win against Iowa and the bottom tier programs in the newly formed Big Ten West division. They'll want to see a team more prepared than any of the previous 10 to break the Badgers' streak. Competing better against Michigan and Ohio State are musts.
All of this is required, mind you, to capitalize on the momentum of this season. Brick By Brick melds with carpe diem.
Seize the opportunities as they're presented. The opportunity for the 2014 Gophers is to do something Minnesota hasn't done in generations, but are in the best position to achieve now more than any time in the previous decade. The Big Ten West is rife with programs that have their fair share of warts. It won't be easy, however, but that's why it'll require an uncommon Gopher team. Uncommon.
Ultimately, it's the change in program culture that's even spurned this reset of expectations. The players and coaches believe they can be uncommon, that they can physically match and play with anyone in the conference. The expectations now are to beat those programs more than they best you.
All due an unexpected and fun season where the Gophers made the turn.
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