Gophers enjoying the ride in an already impressive turnaround season
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MINNEAPOLIS -- The story of the Minnesota Gophers' 2013 season has become more remarkable with each passing week.
It has already been a season marked by resiliency and trend-breaking. On Saturday, the Gophers added another layer to their sudden upsurge.
Forty years had separated the Gophers from the last time they reeled off four straight Big Ten victories. That changed when Minnesota locked down Penn State and held on throughout the afternoon for a 24-10 win - the program's first over the Nittany Lions since 2004.
Only two years ago, the Gophers, in their initial season with Jerry Kill at the helm, stumbled to their second three-win season in a row.
Now Minnesota, sitting at 8-2 on the year, is entering territory it has left uncharted for a long time. A squad that was at a daunting crossroads one month earlier after an 0-2 start to the Big Ten is now in midst of program's fourth eight-win campaign in 46 years.
It is hard not to take notice of what the Gophers have done in the course of four weeks, no matter what reservations you may have about the obvious flaws of this year's crew of Big Ten teams or how they would stack up against a top tier opponent.
As coach Jerry Kill's postgame locker room dance moves accentuated, the Gophers are relishing the moment.
"The biggest thing we needed to do was to get our kids to believe they were better, that they were good football players and believe in themselves," Kill said afterward. "I think each week the belief becomes better. That's what it is all about."
The transformation the Gophers have undergone in both production and mindset was made increasingly obvious Saturday. Rarely, in recent memory, have the Gophers managed to dictate and maintain the tempo of a game in the gauntlet of the Big Ten. They have done so frequently in the last four weeks.
A fumble by Penn State on its first play of the game in a way began to shift the tide of the game in the Gophers' favor before more than ten seconds had passed. The Gophers responded with a field goal and a 15-play, eight-minute, 96-yard touchdown drive -- arguably their most impressive drive of the year -- to grab a lead they did not relent.
Penn State surprised the Gophers by relying heavily on its rushing attack instead of its dangerous pass game. Nittany Lions quarterback Christian Hackenberg attempted only 10 passes in the first three quarters, while tailback Zach Zwinak berated the Gophers with 142 of Penn State's 195 rushing yards in that same stretch.
Despite periodic coverage breakdowns, no collapse came for the Gophers. Even with Penn Sate seemingly on the verge of clamoring back into contention in the fourth quarter, the Gophers came up with a pair of fourth down stops that essentially dashed any hopes of a comeback.
It was another indication of the change in attitude that has taken hold.
"The biggest difference with this team is that in those situations we can fight back," senior cornerback Brock Vereen said. "In previous years we may have been likely to roll over. It's just the mentality of this team. It's just the confidence that we play with. Things don't snowball anymore. There's no domino effect. We're always to bounce back."
An offensive awakening has also been at the core of Minnesota's revival. Amid all the back-and-forth discussion about the Gophers' quarterback situation, sophomore Philip Nelson has reemerged to give little doubt of who their go-to signal caller is.
Under Nelson's guidance, the offense converted on three critical fourth down attempts, controlled the time of possession outright (35:28 to 24:32) and outgained Penn State 381 yards to 353. Running back David Cobb's abrupt rise has also helped. The junior tailback torched the Nittany Lions for 139 yards - his fourth straight 100-yard game.
Nelson, whose career completion rate was hovering around 50 percent after a Big Ten opening loss to Iowa, has connected on 63 percent of his passes in four games for an 188 yards per game average. En route to 186 passing yards and another 40 on the ground, Nelson made it through his fourth consecutive game without an interception.
"Until you have success nobody believes you," Kill said. "Once you have success you gain confidence, and from confidence you get better. That's happening with him."
That sentiment could be extended to the entire team.
Kill has always displayed confidence a turnaround at Minnesota was possible, but even he after the game he didn't expect it to occur as quickly and as dramatically as it has in the last month.
A palpable feeling of intense belief has sprouted within the Gophers that in some cases is aiding in overcoming what they may lack in pure talent. The Big Ten is in no way the imposing conference history once said it was, but the run Minnesota has mounted remains impressive.
One running theme hovering over Minnesota's win Saturday was the possibility of more to come this season. Two games remain, following an upcoming bye week, for the Gophers to bolster their chances of nabbing a coveted Jan. 1 bowl game for the first time since Minnesota's 1961 Rose Bowl season. They must face two of the conference's top teams - Wisconsin and Michigan State -- but the prospect, however slim, of a nine, even a 10-win season is nonetheless there.
For now, the Gophers are enjoying the ride.
"We're having fun now," Cobb said. "Before it was more of a job, you were coming to work and you didn't know if you would win or not. Now we expect to win."