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Updated: October 25th, 2012 1:05am
Sandell: Direction of Gophers' season may be determined against Purdue

Sandell: Direction of Gophers' season may be determined against Purdue

by Nate Sandell
1500ESPN.com

MINNEAPOLIS -- Three consecutive losses have drained most of the good feelings left over from the Gophers football team's 4-0 start to the season.

The start of the Big Ten season has been reality check for the Gophers. They have yet to translate the progress shown in their first four games into the portion of their schedule that the true state of a program is gauged.

One-sided defeats at Iowa and last weekend at Wisconsin can be overlooked to some degree, but the Gophers' woefully muddled opportunity two weeks ago in a 21-13 defeat by Northwestern is a large reason their season has taken on a negative tone. Regardless of where the Gophers claim to be in their rebuilding process that is the type of mid-level conference game that coach Jerry Kill has prove his team can win this year.

Kill has fielded an increasing heap of criticism in recent weeks, some of it unwarranted, and understands where it is coming from.

However, Kill has not altered his direction. He continues to confront questions about the program's current state with his unwavering and repeated appeal for patience.

"Where we're at and how we're growing, we feel good about it," Kill said. "We have a tremendous group of talent, even some that aren't playing right now that are walking around looking awful good. They just need to develop. Our program is going to go through growing pains, because it has been down for a while. We have to live with it."

The success or failure of Year 2 under Kill can't be judged by three Big Ten games. The Gophers have a legitimate chance to put a refreshingly positive spin on both their season and the perceived progress Kill has made. Two wins separate them from becoming bowl eligible for the first time in three years, but the window in which to snatch those two victories is narrowing rapidly.

The Gophers have reached a potentially critical turning point.

A match-up with the equally sub-par Purdue Boilermakers doesn't have widespread allure, but the ramifications of the final result on Saturday could be a primary influence on the postseason outlook for both teams.

Purdue entered the season to hype mostly self-made as coach Danny Hope proclaimed that the Boilermakers were on the verge respectability in the top half of the Big Ten. But Purdue has lost three straight games, though one of those was in overtime to No. 9-ranked Ohio State. A loss Saturday would require the Boilermakers to finish 3-1 just to reach bowl eligibility.

The Gophers weren't harnessing anywhere near the same level of hype, but they still find themselves in a similar situation.

Anything but a win against Purdue at home would take what at this point is a slump and turn it into a step backwards for the Gophers. Purdue, like Northwestern, stands as a highly vulnerable team. It is too early in Kill's tenure for rash judgments, but the Gophers are far enough along to make a victory Saturday one they can't afford to miss out on.

Without it, they would need a pair of wins in a difficult closing stretch, which features games against Michigan and Nebraska, in order to keep their season going into December.

Though a trip to the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl or the Meineke Car Care Bowl isn't an enticing prize to their unsettled fan base, a 6-6 record and a bid to bowl game of any kind would be a significant benchmark for the Gophers. And after the start the Gophers had, it is an outcome that is nearly a necessity if Kill wants to maintain a grounded level of faith outside of the program in what he is trying to do.

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