Sandell: Undefeated record proof of Gophers' change in mentality
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MINNEAPOLIS -- The difference was easy to sense Saturday night while looking down on the sold out crowd at TCF Bank Stadium.
The noise told the story.
Not only were the stands filled to capacity with maroon and gold clad fans, but also for four quarters those in attendance made it known that they were there. The usual gaping patches of open seats at the top of the student section and elsewhere around the stadium were nonexistent.
In their place were waves of raucous fans that had been given a reason to care, a reason not to exit in droves at halftime.
There was an energy circulating through the stadium -- an energy that has been as rare as victories for the Gophers football team in recent years.
"It was great. Sometimes I couldn't hear (quarterback) Max (Shortell) and I was on the offensive side of the ball," running back Donnell Kirkwood joked about the decibel level on the field.
Syracuse was caught off guard by it. The visiting Orange found themselves easily rattled in crucial situations, missing calls at the line and jumping prematurely offsides when commands from quarterback Ryan Nassib couldn't be heard.
"There's no question our crowd made a difference tonight," Gophers coach Jerry Kill said after his team's 17-10 defeat of its first major BCS conference foe this season. "I've said that all along. It's a great atmosphere to play in. I think our kids fed off it. The energy was tremendous on the sideline."
Even with their lowest offensive output of the season, the Gophers used a startling fierce performance on defense to dismantle and outlast Syracuse in a fashion not seen from the team in three long years.
A change is taking place.
In only four games, the Gophers football team has reversed course after back-to-back three-win seasons.
Finding a sizable chunk of fans, casual onlookers and critics alike that predicted the Gophers would be one of three undefeated Big Ten teams four weeks into the season would be a difficult task.
But Kill has altered the mentality within the team and with it has come quantifiable results in the form of wins. Suddenly it has become apparent Kill's constant preaching about the immense rebuild facing the Gophers and the steps needed to move it forward are taking root.
Players are starting to believe it isn't just talk.
"This is why you come to the Big Ten -- to play big time football. These last few seasons, let's be honest, we haven't been there," safety Brock Vereen said. "This is our year. We feel that way. If Coach Kill says to do something we're going to do it and this is the result."
In a noncoference schedule lacking upper-tier opponents, Syracuse was supposed to give the developing Gophers their biggest challenge in a still young season.
The Orange were made to look ill-prepared to do so. Nassib's usual ease in using his arm to propel Syracuse -- a team heavily reliant on the pass -- was stymied, intercepted twice and held to a season-low 228 passing yards -- 82 of which came with the Gophers up 17-3 in the fourth quarter.
The Gophers are a flawed team and it showed in numerous missed scoring chances in the first half -- kicker Jordan Wettstein missed two field goals -- a glut of penalties -- a holding call, one of eight penalties, in the second quarter eliminated would-be touchdown catch by receiver Devin Crawford-Tufts -- and inconsistencies from their rush defense.
But unlike Kill's first season, the Gophers have the potential and wherewithal not to take themselves out of games after careless mistakes.
They proved that Saturday.
Trailing 14-3 in the third quarter, Syracuse had made it into the redzone for only the second time in the game. The Gophers were folding in on themselves. Consecutive pass interference penalties on cornerback Michael Carter had the Orange on the one-yard line.
However, Carter and the "U" defense set aside the missteps at the right time. An astounding goal line stand was capped when linebacker Aaron Hill sprawled out on the turf to pick off a pass from Nassib.
The interception stunned Syracuse. It wasn't until late in the fourth quarter that the Orange managed to find a semblance of composure and mount a touchdown drive.
"A year ago the kids didn't seem able to fight back very well, but the kids seemed to fight back a lot more," Kill said. "We have a lot of work to do. We understand that. We're a long way from where we need to be, but what I did like tonight was that I thought we played hard."
If it wasn't for fellow undefeated squad Northwestern, the Gophers would be sit alone atop the list of biggest surprises, positive ones that is, in the Big Ten so far this season.
How far can this newfound winning attitude carry the Gophers in the nine games ahead of them?
Like the season to this point, it's vastly unpredictable.
Logical thinking would assume that numerous setbacks and struggles await the Gophers as they enter the Big Ten portion of their schedule. The week-to-week competition takes an obvious step up and Kill's team remains relatively unproven. The vulnerabilities that have sprouted occasionally in the last four games are bound to be exposed.
Kill's focus has always been on building for the long-term. Whether or not the forward progress made in less than two years can hold up through 2012 and beyond is a ways off from being known.
But by keeping the Gophers competitive and in a position win on a weekly basis, Kill will be able to consider this year a success, regardless of what their record looks like by the end of November.
It helps the Gophers' cause and pursuit of bowl eligibility that the Big Ten as a whole is in the midst of a drastically sub-par season. Four of the conference's teams already have two losses to their name, including preseason Big Ten champion favorite Michigan. Michigan State has shown it is beatable in a loss to Notre Dame and an unnecessarily close defeat of Eastern Michigan on Saturday. And Wisconsin has looked only slightly above mediocre.
What in the preseason looked like a probable loss to start conference play, the Gophers will now travel to face two-loss rival Iowa next Saturday at Kinnick Stadium as likely favorites.
The changes happening in and around the program are an obvious step forward, but it is still just a start.
There remains a veil of resistance and skepticism blanking disenchanted portions of the fan base that will take time to wear away.
It took a tireless marketing campaign and a bounty of $10 tickets to make a sell out possible for the Syracuse match-up.
That hesitation is slowly starting to break down as the vocal crowd under the stadium lights Saturday attested to. As would be expected, the only way to keep consistently engaging fans is to produce product that can be relied on to make the possibility of winning games a reality.
Kill has unearthed his team's potential, though it is immature. Now he has to prove that it can continue to grow.