Sandell: 'Ugly' or not, victory over Indiana keeps Gophers rolling
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The Minnesota Gophers, in their third season under Jerry Kill, hold a 7-2 record for only the second time in a decade, and they find themselves stationed in the upper tier of the Big Ten standings.
Let that sink in for a minute.
Amid a flurry of scoring, more than a 1,000 combined offensive yards and a near second-half collapse, the Gophers outdueled the Hoosiers in another daunting road test to hold on for a wild 42-39 victory on Saturday afternoon.
For a moment, Indiana was poised to complete a comeback from a 35-13 deficit in front of its Homecoming crowd.
That was before a Hoosier fumble on Minnesota's nine-yard line with under 30 seconds remaining preserved a thrilling, albeit, ugly win for the Gophers.
It was the break the Gophers desperately needed, the strike of good fortune that has often eluded the program in recent years. With that fumble, Minnesota's emergence as a sudden contender in the Big Ten, after numerous seasons filled only with silver linings, added another chapter to its growing 2013 resume.
Minnesota is learning to win in ways it hasn't in quite some time.
There was not much that was "pretty" about Saturday's win. Sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson threw for a career-high 298 yards and four touchdowns, and David Cobb ran for his third consecutive 100-yard game (188). Defensive lapses and a letup in energy the second half almost negated those efforts, opening the Hoosiers up to a rally.
If Indiana's Tevin Coleman had held on to the ball within striking distance of the endzone, it's easy to argue the end result would have leveled the Gophers a disheartening blow.
But good teams find ways to win ugly games even when they appear to be on the verge of slipping away. Minnesota is beginning to play with that mentality.
Four weeks ago, the Gophers were seemingly at a crossroads in their season. Michigan tagged them with a 42-13 defeat one week after a deflating trouncing by Iowa, adding up to a 0-2 start in the Big Ten. Shortly afterward, coach Jerry Kill announced he was taking an indefinite leave of absence to deal with treatment for his battle with epilepsy.
Minnesota's season could have easily fallen into a downward spiral and halted the obvious strides made by Kill and his staff to that point.
But the Gophers have gone the opposite direction, and in turn, have reignited a lost level of excitement among a some times despondent fan base, weathered by years of disappointment.
The turnaround began with a resilient win on the road at Northwestern, followed by Minnesota's first defeat of Nebraska since 1960.
The Gophers did not survive easily in their "upset bid" at Indiana - they came in as 7.5 point underdogs -- but ultimately they captured the desired result. Thanks in part to an offense that produced 573 yards, the 11th most in program history, the Gophers notched three straight victories in the Big Ten for the first time since 2008.
It has been five years since the Gophers reached the seven-win threshold. They are back at that spot with three games to go in the regular season. One more victory would be enough for their best record since Year 7 of the Glen Mason era (2003).
Kill, even though he spent the last three games watching from above in the press box, remains the face of the program. Going on three years now, he has preached about the slow and necessary rebuilding process and the potential he saw at Minnesota.
But until their most recent three-week stretch, the signs of progress in its most coveted form -- victories - had appeared only sporadically.
Regardless of what awaits the Gophers, they have already qualified their current campaign as successful season. However, success comes in different intervals, and the Gophers still have a chance to send another statement.
Minnesota returns home next week to face Penn State, who needed overtime to beat Illinois Saturday. Wisconsin and Michigan State also remain on the Gophers' schedule in what should be the most formidable two games of their season.
When discussing the possibilities for the Gophers football team this season, perspective has to be maintained We're talking about a squad that is just starting to show the resolve required to win key games. Even so, the Gophers are mathematically in legitimate contention for the Big Ten Legends division title. That would require Minnesota to win out this season and Michigan State, 5-0 in the Big Ten, to falter.
A bid to the Buffalo Wild Wings and Gator Bowls, which go to the No. 4 and No. 5 teams in the Big Ten, are very much in picture. If the Gophers made it to the Gator Bowl, it would be the first time they have played on Jan. 1 since defeating UCLA in the 1961 Rose Bowl.
No matter what the outcome is, at the very least the Gophers have brought back a level of anticipation and suspense to the final weeks of the season that has rarely been felt in Minnesota in recent memory.