Sandell: Gophers capture signature win, but it can't stop there
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Midway through Year 3 of Jerry Kill's attempt at rebuilding the Gophers football team, the search for a "signature win," the type of victory Kill insisted was needed to serve as the cornerstone of the program, remained an elusive quest.
On Saturday, as Maroon and Gold clad fans trickled out of the TCF Bank Stadium stands to swarm the euphoric team celebrating on the field among the commotion, it seemed the Gophers may finally have found the victory they had been looking for.
For the first time since 1960, a span of 16 dishearteningly lopsided defeats, Minnesota beat Nebraska.
By way of an offense that suddenly found a lasting spark and a defense that rebounded from an early 10-0 deficit, the Gophers held command of the frazzled No. 25-ranked Cornhuskers in a 34-23 victory to move to 6-2 -- their best record before Nov. 1 since 2008.
"This is just the win that we needed as a program," senior safety Brock Vereen said. "We've been in situations like this, but finally we put all the pieces in the right place. To get a win like this will be huge for us."
The debate over what is considered a "signature win," and whether the Gophers' handling of a clearly flawed Nebraska squad qualifies, is sure to rage in the next few days.
Admittedly a surge of perspective and restraint has to carry through any lofty claims. But for the current state of the program, trying to overcome its troubled past, it is hard to mount much of a counterargument.
After an 0-2 start to Big Ten play, Minnesota has revitalized its season and its chance to be the surprise team in the conference this season.
And it came with Kill not on the sidelines, but watching from the press box.
Out on indefinite medical leave for the last three weeks, Kill, the face of the program, has kept to the background. Instead, he has taken on an advisor role, making appearances at practices throughout the week and holding on to locker room speech duties.
Even in his absence from the field, the fundamentals and foundation he has heralded ad nauseam since his arrival at the "U" were on display Saturday.
"He's got some things he still has to do, but as he continues to improve and be around. To the kids, all of us, to have him around, it means so much," said acting head coach Tracy Claeys, displaying an obvious surge of emotion. "He'd love to be out there. It's been taken away from him. He'd love to be out there. We want to make sure we do him well.
Beating Northwestern last week was a needed but not flashy step forward. Taking down Nebraska, and in a fashion that didn't leave much doubt over the true victor, resembled what could be the turning point the Gophers have rarely seen the potential positive side of.
Behind running back David Cobb's second straight 100-yard plus rushing game (138 yards), the Gophers fully instituted the relentless power run game it has displayed in spurts. Minnesota outdid Nebraska and top back Ameer Abdullah on the ground by 82 yards (271-189).
On defense, the Gophers wouldn't let quarterback Taylor Martinez get comfortable. He was sacked four times, unable to find any consistency with his receivers (16-of-30 passing).
An underlying key to Minnesota's last two victories: Zero turnovers. Meanwhile, their opponents have committed five (Northwestern - three, Nebraska - two). Also, apart from two facemask penalties by Ra'Shede Hageman, the Gophers played the most disciplined overall game they have at any point in the last three years.
Before the upset at Northwestern, the Gophers' best wins of the Kill era came at Iowa's expense, both victories that had limited bearing on the season as a whole. They now have another to replace those.
But judging a game as a "program-defining" moment can only be truly evaluated by what comes next. Minnesota hasn't won more than six games in a season in five years. It's been a decade since they last reached the eight-win threshold.
The Gophers have four games, and now a bowl game, in which they must take the program at least one step further. An 0-4 finish to the regular season would negate much of what happened against Nebraska. The potential to avoid that fate is there, and Minnesota is starting to reflect the confidence needed.
"You don't sigh and you don't celebrate," Claeys said. "You get bowl eligible in October you reset your goals a whole hell of a lot higher, and that's what we told the kids ... They have learn now how to handle the success."
Indications are that they are much better equipped to do so than they were a year ago after starting 4-0.
Like they did against Northwestern, Minnesota fended off any signs of a "here we go again" mentality, closing out a resilient fourth quarter with a three-and-out defensive stand that snuffed out Nebraska's last chance at a go-ahead drive.
It wrapped up a performance that reflected a change in mindset that has started to grab hold among the players. As quarterback Philip Nelson admitted, the Gophers finally have discovered a firmly grounded belief they can win high-level games.
"We're starting to believe, and that's all that really all that needs to be said right now," said Nelson, who came off the bench again to lead the Gophers' in the game's stretch run. "We have the confidence rolling from week to week and we're finally starting to realize how good can be."
Now the test for the Gophers becomes stopping that mentality from being just a fleeting trait. That starts next week on the road against a high-powered, but vulnerable Indiana Hoosiers team.