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Updated: September 24th, 2013 6:01pm
Gophers better geared to handle 4-0 record this time around

Gophers better geared to handle 4-0 record this time around

by Nate Sandell
1500ESPN.com
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Jerry Kill and the Minnesota Gophers have been here before.

For the second straight year, the Gophers head into Big Ten play, set to meet border rival Iowa on Saturday, again holding on to a coveted 4-0 record.

In 2012, an unblemished nonconference run did nothing to foretell what was to come for the Gophers, other than providing a much-welcomed four-game boost towards bowl eligibility.

When the Gophers, then in the second year of Kill's tenure, had successfully navigated the season's first four weeks, the tone among players was one of relief and a sudden feeling that the massive program rebuild Kill had set into motion was catching on quicker than they expected.

Iowa brought them harshly back to reality.

The Gophers weren't ready for what awaited them in the Big Ten. Within two quarters inside the unfriendly confines of Kinnick Stadium, the Hawkeyes had already set into motion a 31-13 blowout.

"They honestly just kicked our butt," Kill said on Tuesday during his weekly news conference. "They lined up and kicked our butt for four quarters. It's very disturbing as a head football coach ... I don't have any excuses. They just did."

Although the Gophers recovered to grab the two wins needed to make their first postseason bowl appearance in three years, they stumbled through the Big Ten slate with a 2-6 record.

Whether it was complacency borne out of inexperience and still untapped talent or other factors, the Gophers struggled to break out of a downward spiral the loss to Iowa kickstarted until given time to regroup before their appearance in the Meineke Car Care Bowl.

This time around, however, the mindset in-house seems to have undergone a significant shift.

Through four games, the Gophers have worked through various missteps (See: Lack of a passing attack) to put together some of the most convincing victories of the Kill era, albeit against varying levels of competition.

Behind a ground game that boasts a pair of currently thriving tailbacks (Rodrick Williams and David Cobb) and two quarterbacks (Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner) more than willing to tuck and run, Minnesota boasts the Big Ten's third-best rushing offense (282.2 yards per game). Plus, with a defense that has shown flashes of dominance and considerable improvements made in overall efficiency (Gophers are the conference's least penalized team), it has warranted the need for more recognition of their current record.

But the Gophers have far from proven themselves, and they know it. That is what Big Ten season is for. The grind of the conference schedule and how Kill's squad handles it in its third go-around will truly define the state of the program. With Purdue and Illinois both off the schedule this year, notching three-plus victories in the Big Ten would require wins against at least two teams they haven't defeated in four or more years.

What can be gleaned from how the Gophers have managed themselves to this point in the year is that they come across as capable of handling a major test of the program's progress at this juncture, without taking a step back like the hard-to-erase bad taste that was left after last year's debacle in Iowa City.

"The fact that we were 4-0 was a great thing, but after that loss we didn't know how to respond," senior safety Brock Vereen said. "Really, after that first quarter we didn't know how to respond. Last year we hadn't been punched in the mouth, really. We've learned from that. We understand the Big Ten is an entirely new season."

The Gophers realize what they must do to avoid a third consecutive two-win conference record. Now it is a matter of how that realization translates to real-time results in the final eight games of the season.

Nate Sandell is a contributor to 1500ESPN.com.
Email Nate | @nsandell
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