There is a scene in the fifth episode of the fifth season of the seminal HBO series The Sopranos in which Christopher Moltisanti, "nephew" to story patriarch and anti-hero Tony Soprano, succumbs to addiction in a moment of weakness and empties every round in the magazine of his pistol into a vehicle he mistakes for Tony's recognizable Chevy Suburban. When he enters The Bing brazened, intoxicated and flailing his pistol around, he boldly decrees that Tony would be dead if he hadn't "ran out of load."
The precipitating incident that caused Christopher to break his sobriety in the first place was misplaced anger over rumors of indiscretion between his fiance, Adrianna, and Tony. Rather than confront Tony directly, his demons overcame him, and a meek attack on a strawman was all he was able to muster. In the end, Christopher's life rest in Tony's hands who, ready to put his nuisance of a nephew down for good, instead listened to his more pragmatic cousin Tony B and found a way to convince Christopher that nothing occurred between Tony and Adrianna. Christopher is placated but humiliated, and Tony escapes yet another situation that would otherwise cause his reign to crumble upon itself.
Minnesota is Christopher, emptying rounds into our construct of what Wisconsin football is. The Badgers are Tony, who managed to escape comeuppance yet again. Most apropos, this episode of The Sopranos is titled "Irregular Around the Margins," a perfect description of where Jerry Kill Minnesota football is at the conclusion of the regular season of Year Four.
2014 was a fun regular season, though a different kind of fun than 2013. Last year was unexpected, and the joy we experienced was of something forming before our eyes. The Gophers weren't expected to be any good a season ago, but they were, and rattled off four consecutive Big Ten wins in mostly improbable fashion. This year, we knew what we had going in. There would be lots of David Cobb and Maxx Williams. The defense would again be solid. And Kill's teams would play physically, and mentally tough.
The schedule was much more daunting however, with trips to TCU, Michigan, Nebraska and Wisconsin on the docket, plus Ohio State rotating in as a Big Ten East division opponent rather than Penn State, Indiana or conference newcomers Maryland and Rutgers. Common refrains held that Minnesota may be a better team this season, but would end up with a worse record given the strength of schedule. That Jerry Kill and his players posted the same overall win count and bumped their conference record to 5-3 despite that challenge was incredibly fun. And the wins they did notch? Much more satisfying and fulfilling than anything that had occurred in a single season in quite some time.
The tone for the season was set in the opening week of Big Ten play with the Gophers dominating Michigan in Ann Arbor 30-14, likely sealing Brady Hoke's fate. More importantly, it destroyed any mental block the team, coaches and fans had against the Wolverines, proving that not only can they beat historic programs on the road in front of large crowds, but they could physically whip them too. Exorcizing the demons of 55-0 against the Hawkeyes was equally rewarding, as it left behind whatever visage of Gopher football people thought they knew behind in a wake of rubber pellets. Beating Nebraska in Lincoln was all a crescendo to the final week of the season, in which Minnesota had a chance to clinch their first Big Ten division title in history and play for their first conference championship since 1967.
Alas, they came up just short. But just getting to that stage was exhilarating, even if there were tense moments in between. The drubbing in Forth Worth. Needing a late kickoff return to put away Northwestern. Falling asleep at the wheel at home against Purdue. The letdown at Illinois. Making too many mistakes against Ohio State in a game where all the intangibles favored Minnesota. The blocked field goal returned for a touchdown in Lincoln. None of that tainted or overshadowed the triumphs against Michigan, Iowa and Nebraska, nor did it diminish what was the best season since 2003.
The individual efforts were amazing. Cobb surpassed Laurence Maroney and broke the Minnesota single season rushing record, and Maxx played at an All-American level en route to becoming a Mackey Award finalist. Both were every bit as good as I remembered Marion Barber and Ben Utecht to be back in the day. Damien Wilson was a beast all year and the best Gopher middle linebacker I've seen in quite some time. The secondary consistently made plays, and the offensive line was the physical, road grading bunch we'd hope to develop for a while. More than anything though, the entire team's resiliency -- the embodiment of their head coach -- made the games enjoyable to watch, week in and out. You knew they would battle, play tough and make the opponents earn everything they got. Eight of twelve times, foes weren't up to the task.
Beating true rivals (Michigan and Iowa) and old foes for those with long memories (Nebraska) is what made the year, especially how. Beating all three at what is traditionally their style of play and doing it better is the best kind of catharsis. Finishing the year 6-1 at home, the best mark since 1977, was a welcome treat for the fans who've endured so much throughout recent history.
This season feels akin to a 1999 season which, ironically, saw historic road victories that put the program in position but also suffered from opportunities lost against Wisconsin and Ohio State. Glen Mason would use that elevated status from back-to-back bowl appearances and 9 B1G wins over a two year period -- unheard at Minnesota in recent memory -- to recruit even better talent for his next expedition up the B1G landscape.
Greg Eslinger. Marion Barber III. Darrell Reid. Rian Melander. Mark Setterstrom. Jared Ellerson. Matt Spaeth. Laurence Maroney. All were Gopher recruits signed after the breakthrough season of 1999 that were heavy contributors to the "second peak" in 2003. Having a senior leader at quarterback like Asad Abdul-Khaliq, signed in the 1999 class, was similarly important to Mason's second 5-3 run, as were other vital cogs.
Mason's rushing attack was really good in 1999 -- 11th in the nation with 2630 total yards on the ground on 517 carries -- and the David Gibbs-led defense was 8th in the nation in points allowed, surrendering only 15.6 a game. Much of that 15.6 was the result of holding awful teams like Ohio, Louisiana-Monroe, Illinois State and Illinois to 7 points or less, but they still managed to hold B1G foes to under 20 a game. That level of competency on defense earned Gibbs some attention, who left after 2000 along with defensive line coach Mark Snyder. Minnesota's defense was never the same, though the offense keep on chugging.
Odd that two seasons (2013 and 2014) can feel so much like one (1999), yet here we are: great individual talents surrounded by improving depth around a specific scheme. But simply not enough to beat the best teams in the conference, which is the next logical step in the program's ascendency.
And yet, there is one rival that still remains. One last check mark for Kill to pencil through before we've truly arrived.
The Gophers are close. Close as they've ever been in my lifetime. I had a feeling back mid-summer of 2013 that we had enough talent to make "The Turn" from a moribund program to a good one. Turns out we did, and expectations were reset accordingly:
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 Gophers most certainly didn't take a step backward from the previous year, though one could argue they merely extended what they did well rather than take the next step. Minnesota is fundamentally a good team who runs the ball, executes on play-action when it's available, plays solid defense and good special teams. They are also not exceptional in any one of those aspects. In order for this program to make the leap, they need to improve at the margins -- some areas more than others.
Taking that next step will require improvement in recruiting, development, coaching, play-calling, talent and performance. It is by no means an easy fix, since it's comprehensive, nor may it come next season; the alignment of skill, players and bounces that manifest itself in a season with another championship opportunity may take several years. As stated above, the second peak of the Mason era didn't happen until 2003. Even then, the Gophers went into battle against the best teams in the conference with the majority of their talent (both player and coach) on the offensive side of the ball, a strategy that seems counter-intuitive when you consider how Mason won 9 Big Ten games from 1999-2000 in the first place (running the ball and playing good defense). Kill will say he has a good team coming back for 2015, and he's probably right. Becoming a great team is the challenge, one even he suggests may take the full seven years of his original contract.
There are many things that require tweaking. More consistency from the quarterback position is the most glaring. Better play-calling to utilize available skill position guys like K.J. Maye, Berkley Edwards and Donovahn Jones in more creative ways, such as screens, slants and drags. A top-to-bottom review of the passing game, especially route trees and pass protections. Better play overall from the wide receivers, more explosion from the running back position. On defense, a way to get off the field on 3rd downs -- most notably through better pressure from the defensive line and getting home on sacks. Reducing the communication breakdowns in the secondary from once a game to almost never. Improving field goal percentage.
Of course, Minnesota will have to recruit a little better as well. Kids like Jeff Jones, Melvin Holland and Jerry Gibson will help, as will the massive bodies along the offensive line Limegrover has assembled each recruiting class (offensive line is the one position the Gophers legitimately recruit at a national level). However, the strategy may have to pivot just a tad. The culture of trusting their own evaluations can continue, as there's nothing wrong with it -- especially for a program that's just now developing some semblance of depth. Instead, recruiting -- along with everything else -- must revolve around a single goal: winning a Big Ten championship.
This is where the construct of Wisconsin football (and, by proxy, the other top teams in the conference like Ohio State) comes in. Rather than orienting the program philosophy, top-to-bottom, around playing a style that can compete with most anyone week in and out, the goal should be to build a program that's better than the top teams in the league. Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan State are going to remain good programs, so hoping to catch any one of them in a down year is not the answer. Nor is the answer to beating a team like Wisconsin to simply stop the one thing that they're good at, since Minnesota held the Badgers to their lowest FBS rushing output from a yards and yards per rush perspective all year -- and still lost. It's simply not enough to limit the Badgers at their game and expect to win. We need to be comprehensively better than Wisconsin in all facets in order to beat them in their house. And while Wisconsin has escaped on lucky situations against Minnesota before, we cannot rely upon the football gods to do our bidding for us. We have to manufacture our own luck, by simply being better.
In order for Minnesota to finally achieve vengeance and put down the few remaining obstacles in their path, they'll need to grow from a good program to a great program, or a good program capable of great seasons. To do so will require an irregular path, along the margins.