Sandell: 'U' eager to get back on field after week to think about loss
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MINNEAPOLIS -- For Minnesota Gophers defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, it came down to eight plays.
Those eight plays have contributed to putting a blemish on the Gophers' still young season, and have clouded, somewhat unfairly, the team's strong four-game undefeated start.
In that brief first half stretch, Iowa created a 24-0 deficit that couldn't be made up, despite a refocused approach by the Gophers in the second half.
It was a bad loss for the rebuilding program, one that brought to the forefront flaws on both sides of the ball. But the defeat has been made to look worse because of a two-week hiatus between games that has allowed the sting to linger.
After a needed bye week to regroup, Claeys is ready to give onlookers a reason not to judge the team's trajectory this season by one woeful first half.
"What's frustrating is that everybody thinks we fell off the edge of the earth," Claeys said. "There were eight (bad) plays in that game ... Yeah, I don't like it. The kids don't like it. We didn't play very well. We misfit three plays out of those eight. We missed tackled in four of the eight. In one of them we had our eyes wrong in the backfield.
"Because of those eight plays we fell off the end of the world, so I'm ready to play to get that out of here, quite frankly."
As Claeys' blunt message exudes, what has been overshadowed by the Gophers' showing in Iowa City is the notion that they still hold a 4-1 record, with a realistic opportunity of matching or surpassing their win total from the past two seasons combined (six).
The loss wasn't so much a reality check for coach Jerry Kill's team, as it was a reminder to spectators. The Gophers were not and still are not going to make a sudden rise to the top half of the Big Ten this season. They simply don't have the depth of talent and experience to do so.
The coaching staff knows that. Kill won't let you forget it with the numbing amount of times he remarks about the youth of his team. The players also understand the program's current state. That doesn't mean the Gophers aren't determined to continue to dramatically reshape the perception of the program in the seven games that remain.
Kill's team has not panicked, nor should it have. The Gophers did not spend the bye week dwelling on the loss and making wholesale changes and adjustments. The extra time was used instead to address fundamental issues -- tackling and defensive fits in the secondary, remedying the momentary lapses that have occurred between quarterbacks Max Shortell and MarQueis Gray and the receiving corps -- as well as providing a chance for the team to reduce its injury concerns.
The almost unshakeable daze that often overtook players after losses in recent years has dissipated. Kill has replaced it with an in-house belief that the program remains in forward motion.
"It was hard having the loss and having a week to sit around and think about it, but the game is behind us," junior safety Brock Vereen said. "The coaches made a point of staying positive. The big picture is that we're 4-1. That's something to be happy about, but it's also not something to be content about."
Contentment has not been an issue for the Gophers. Within hours of their first loss, players were voluntarily streaming the game tape on the flight back to Minneapolis, dissecting what went wrong. Guys such as senior linebacker Mike Rallis and numerous others were in the film room at the team's practice early in the morning the next day, well before their afternoon meeting time.
It was an occurrence Kill said he had not witnessed since taking over this program nearly two years ago.
"(The players) want to do well, and they want to perform. They don't want to let anybody down, so they're working at it," Kill said Tuesday.
Kill bristled slightly at the pressing questions he's received since walking out of Kinnick Stadium two weeks ago.
"If you've got the want to, you've got a chance," he said. "I think they understand where they're at. I think they understand where we're trying to get to. They understand it's not going to be easy, and they know there are going to be setbacks and people that question you and so forth."
Now the test for the Gophers becomes backing up their statements about the team's newfound resiliency. Has Kill's squad improved enough to prevent one loss from compounding into a long-term skid?
They are at a crucial turning point in their season. With games against Wisconsin, Michigan, Nebraska and Michigan State still ahead of them, the opportunities for the Gophers to reach the six-win, bowl game eligible threshold are narrowing. Given the promise shown in the their first four games, failure to notch at least two more victories would make this yet another disappointing season.
Saturday's homecoming match-up with Northwestern is a very winnable challenge. That goes for both programs. Like the Gophers, Pat Fitzgerald's Wildcats are coming off their first loss of the year -- a fourth-quarter collapse prevented Northwestern from moving to 6-0 for the first time in 50 years.
Northwestern is dangerous and deserving of being 3.5 point favorites on Saturday. However, the Gophers are in a position, with the game being at home, where a win is a near necessity if they want to keep a positive spin on their season.
To do so, the Gophers can't afford costly lapses like the one that occurred at Iowa, even if they only last eight plays. Proving that they are capable of quickly rebounding from a lopsided defeat would be another key step in Kill's rebuilding attempt.