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Updated: November 30th, 2013 4:38pm
Sandell: Loss to Spartans leaves Gophers again thinking 'what if?'

Sandell: Loss to Spartans leaves Gophers again thinking 'what if?'

by Nate Sandell
1500ESPN.com

A week ago, Wisconsin left the Minnesota Gophers shrouded with a feeling of "what if?"

Critical turnovers and an offense that could not get into the endzone clouded the impressive resiliency Minnesota showed against one of the Big Ten's top teams. The sentiment throughout the Gophers locker room was ripe with disappointment from a game they felt was well in reach.

To the Gophers' dismay, the story repeated Saturday at Michigan State.

As was the case against the Badgers, the "U" defense physically matched the No. 11-ranked Spartans nearly blow for blow, holding them to their second lowest scoring output of the season (14 points).

Even offensively, the Gophers dominated the time of possession battle (38:41 to 21:19) and junior running back David Cobb, behind a stellar showing from his offensive line, joined Ameer Abdullah as the only two players this season to run for 100 yards on the nation's top rated defense.

But Michigan State's defense refused to yield at crucial moments, and the Gophers could not find the scoring they needed to support the high caliber elements of their performance.

Held to only a field goal, the "U" offense's touchdown drought stretched to 10 straight quarters. Three turnovers, one of which came on a key fourth quarter possession in the redzone, also aided in spoiling the Gophers' afternoon. A 9-of-25 passing mark (36 percent) by quarterbacks Philip Nelson (6-of-18, 77 yards) and Mitch Leidner (3-of-7, 48 yards) didn't help.

Ultimately, Michigan State prevailed, 14-3, to keep its BCS aspirations intact, while the Gophers (8-4, 5-3), in a year filled with clear signs of promise, ended the regular season with two losses that were seemingly on the cusp of falling in their favor.

Saturday's defeat did not take away from the bold statement the Gophers have made this season in the Big Ten. As the evolution of its largely disciplined and physically grinding identity sped up, Minnesota rebounded from an 0-2 start in conference play to reel off four straight victories.

It has been a season highlighted by long untapped milestones -- only Minnesota's fifth eight-win season in the last five decades, its first run of four consecutive Big Ten wins in 40 years, first 1,000 yard rusher (Cobb) since Amir Pinnix (2006), etc.

Jerry Kill's program overhaul has taken root and tangible results have already sprouted. Progress has been made. The right pieces appear to be in place.

Minnesota is on the verge, but it is still waiting to take the next step towards the goal of rising closer to the Big Ten's upper echelon.

Last season, the Gophers were clearly overmatched when came to going up against the likes of Wisconsin, Michigan State and Nebraska. That has since changed.

Losses to the Badgers and Spartans were showcases of both the significant strides the Gophers have made and the steps the program must still make to get to where Kill and Co. have set course for.

The Gophers must now wait to learn their postseason fate. The Gator Bowl (fifth selection in Big Ten) or a return trip to the Texas Bowl seems to be their likely destination. Reaching the Gator Bowl and matching up against an SEC foe, which would require the Gophers to be selected over one of the six eligible Big Ten squads, would be a sizable accomplishment in Kill's third year.

Regardless, a bowl win would give Minnesota nine wins on the year, qualifying for the program's second highest win total in the modern era. Where that chance will come will be decided by next Sunday.

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