Gophers held with Badgers, but took away 'no moral victories' in loss
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MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Gophers, this year's unquestionable darlings of the Big Ten, have been the portrait of a program undergoing a dramatic resurgence.
Long-standing marks of futility (40 years without four straight conference victories) have already fallen this season en route to one of the most successful campaigns in team history.
However, while the forward strides have been clearly on display, the Gophers' leap back into the upper echelon of the Big Ten is a pursuit that they are not yet ready to fully make.
On Saturday, the upstart Gophers were faced with an opportunity to take down No. 16-ranked border rival Wisconsin for a win that had the potential to reverberate throughout the Big Ten.
Ultimately, the Badgers offered a forceful reminder of what is necessary to reach that level.
Outplayed in a grinding fashion, the Gophers could not overcome a trio of key turnovers and an offense that couldn't find the endzone, unable to prevent Wisconsin from capturing the Paul Bunyan's Axe rivalry trophy for the 10th straight year in a 20-7 defeat.
Minnesota didn't succumb easily to the Badgers, as had happened often in recent chapters of the nation's longest running rivalry. But the Gophers weren't ready to take solace simply from being able to stick around.
"We definitely don't feel good about almost winning," running back David Cobb said. "It's not so much about the Axe. We feel we can line up and beat anybody we play with. But I don't anyone feels good right now about going toe to toe with them."
Under brutal sub-20 degree temperatures and winds over 10 miles per hour, Wisconsin's defense refused to yield. The Gophers, lacking top receiver Derrick Engel after he tore his ACL earlier in the week, never found the offensive consistency they desperately needed.
Throughout the Gophers' four-game win-streak, sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson was almost unflappable, resiliently guiding an awakening for the "U" offense. Against Wisconsin, Nelson and the offense became glaringly vulnerable. The Badgers exposed the gaps in development that still remain.
Able to garner a minimal 10 yards rushing against a nearly impenetrable Badger defensive front, Minnesota was forced go to the air. Nelson labored to get in-sync with his thin receiving corps. Sixteen of his 23 throws fell incomplete, many products of dropped passes.
With their defense turning out one its most physical performances of the season, the Gophers were granted a litany of openings in the second half to bounce back from the 13-point lead the Badgers had opened up. Those chances were spoiled by an inability to sustain drives, getting no closer to the endzone than Wisconsin's 18-yard line.
"There was definitely a lack of rhythm on our part," Nelson said. "Simply put, we didn't make enough plays. As an offense, that comes down to the players, that comes down to me, that comes down to everybody."
Crucial to the Gophers' success this season has been a notable lack of turnovers. When problems holding on to the ball popped up Saturday, the game slowly came unraveled. The Gophers committed as many turnovers (3) as they had in their previous five games combined.
Two of Wisconsin's scoring drives came off the Gophers' trio of fumbles. The turnovers continually sucked away whatever momentum Minnesota was seemingly starting to gain.
The Gophers surged into control early in the second quarter when senior linebacker cut off a pass from Badgers quarterback Joel Stave and carried it into the endzone to claim a 7-3 lead.
A strong defensive stop was followed by a chance at least a field goal on the Gophers' next drive. Wisconsin reversed the course of the game when linebacker Chris Borland drilled Nelson around the Badgers' 36-yard line, forcing a fumble. From there, Wisconsin scored 17 unanswered points.
The Gophers may have learned they are not yet on the same level as Wisconsin, but their defense's relentless showing was proof that getting to that point is much more in reach than it was a year ago. Minnesota held the nation's seventh-best rushing team to more than 100 yards under its average (307.9 yds to 197 on Saturday).
Close, but not enough.
"Physically, I thought we did a pretty good job," Kill said. "I think we're catching up. There ain't no doubt about that. We've got to continue to recruit. We should be disappointed that we didn't win the game, because we played physical enough to do that. We just didn't make some plays."
The Badgers did take some of the luster off the run the Gophers have put together this year, but it didn't outrightly devalue their upward movement or end halt their successful season.
Newly minted Big Legends Division winner Michigan State awaits the Gophers next Saturday in their season finale. A win against the Spartans, who have a potential Rose Bowl berth in their sights, could have nearly the same impact as a victory over Wisconsin would have granted.
The Outback Bowl (the Big Ten's No. 3 team) or even the Capital One Bowl (Big Ten No. 2) are still potentially in play. Beating Michigan State seems to be the only way the Gophers make either one of those games a possible destination come selection time.
"We're not folding," senior safety Brock Vereen said. "Now it's how good of a bowl game do we want to go to."
The focus shifts to how the Gophers rebound from their first loss in more than a month against an opponent arguably as good, if not better, than the one they lost to on Saturday. And they must do so on the road at East Lansing.
Kill has preached endlessly about the resiliency of his developing squad, and the Gophers have backed up those claims. But now that resiliency is being put to yet another test.
There was no denying the sting that lingered over the Gophers in the aftermath of a game they felt slipped away at the hands of the Badgers. The question is can they rally to turn an eight-win season into nine for only the second time in program history.
"There's no moral victories," Kill said. "We got beat. I don't how much time there is until midnight, but it needs to hurt. And just like everybody in the NFL, if you worry about it you'll get beat again. Our job on Sunday is to get them locked back in."