Sandell: Too early to gauge if Gophers' forward progress can last
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Two games, two victories.
It has been a long, trying three years since the Gophers last sat in Week 3 of a season nursing an unblemished 2-0 record.
A win on Saturday against Western Michigan would not only put the Gophers out to their best start since 2008, but it would help match their win total from each of the last two seasons.
"You can sense that energy and that confidence going out through this complex," quarterback MarQueis Gray said Tuesday. "That is something we're looking forward to this week, is going into practices confident and just having fun, getting excited for a chance to be 3-0."
For a program desperate for a tangible reason for optimism, the bolstered confidence created within the team is a notable sign of progress.
But how much about the Gophers' long-term success this season and the longevity of coach Jerry Kill's rebuilding attempt can be gauged two weeks into Year 2?
As should be expected, the answer is very little.
And Kill's unaltered never-content mantra reflects that stance. Even after his team's well-earned back-to-back wins, Kill has made clear he isn't taking that as anything more than two minor check marks on a much grander list.
"We played two games (and won). That's great and everything like that, but we've got to get ready for Saturday, and we have to be better than we were last week," Kill said during his weekly news conference Tuesday.
"In my opinion from watching film, evaluating where we're at, we have a long, long way to go, and our kids understand that."
It makes sense given that the Gophers' two wins -- a triple overtime marathon at UNLV, a loser last week to Northern Arizona, and a 44-7 rout of New Hampshire -- were both flawed and against lesser competition.
The true tests of second year progress are still to come. The Gophers' nonconference schedule isn't a foreboding one, but it is setting up perfectly for a team in need of a gradual increase in competition. They get that with Western Michigan's 3-4 defense and multifaceted offense and a week later with the better-than-their-record-shows Syracuse Orange, who combined for 70 points in losses to Northwestern and USC.
Setbacks are inevitably ahead for the Gophers. Fans shouldn't start setting aside vacation time in late-December for a bowl trip to lovely Detroit or Houston. This remains a team for which a six-win season and low-tier bowl invite would be a noteworthy accomplishment.
By the time the Gophers travel to Kinnick Stadium for their Big Ten opener with Iowa on Sept. 29, it will be possible to get at least a reasonable idea of whether or not Kill's team, which is just beginning to remember what on-field success feels like, can hold up through those week-to-week obstacles without major derailments.
In both wins, reminders of the Gophers' sapling state abounded. MarQueis Gray hasn't proven he can be a reliable threat in the passing game, while maintaining a level of potent mobility. Consistency and communication on the offensive line has improved, but still must congeal further to keep Gray and the running backs protected come Big Ten season.
Quarterback pressure from the defensive line has been one of the most pleasing sights so far this season, but are Ra'Shede Hageman and company capable of matching up with the big-bodied offensive lines they will see in the Big Ten? Though they have gotten away with it, the linebacker corps has been caught out of position and overmatched at times, especially on the run.
However, those knocks can't fully overshadow the slew of positives to have arisen in the first two weeks of the season that haven't been sensed around the Gophers football program since they were suffocated into hiding during the previous coaching regime.
Say what you will about the credibility of wins against FCS opponents, the Gophers hadn't overwhelmed a nonconference team it was expected to defeat, in the manner a Big Ten-caliber program should be, in four years (37-3 victory over Florida Atlantic in 2008).
New Hampshire had its openings last Saturday -- consecutive first half drives of eight plays or more against a reeling "U" defense put the Wildcats on the brink of sounding an early upset alert. But those chances were abruptly stymied by Gray's 75-yard touchdown run and defensive tackle Hageman's critical third down sack on New Hampshire's next possession.
While it's clichéd and early in the season, with two wins Kill has his players feeling long-term success is in reach.
"Those were two teams we didn't think were as good, but we know as a unit that, wow, everybody is believing and everybody is believing in Coach Kill," junior linebacker Brendan Beal said. "As a team we're coming together. On the field you can see it. We're having a blast with each other."
Can Kill keep the rebuild in forward motion?
Another year likely stands in the way of it even being possible for the Gophers to reach larger-scale milestones. But the back half of the nonconference slate and their trek through the Big Ten schedule will offer another meaningful progress test.