Fortunes turn quickly for Gophers

Minnesota still has hopes for top-tier bowl game

Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS -- Surrounded by reporters Tuesday, linebacker Terrance Campbell commented on how the Minnesota Gophers need to stay focused to play in a "good" bowl game this year.

A few days earlier, that "good" bowl game was the Rose Bowl.

Amazing how quickly things have turned around.


Less than two weeks ago, the Gophers were 5-0, ranked 13th in the nation and had a legitimate shot at the Big Ten championship and the invitation to the Rose Bowl that goes with it. Now here they are: two straight losses, a blowout defeat at Michigan State, out of the Top 25 poll and their tickets to Pasadena all but in the paper shredder.

"Expectations are still high," receiver Ernie Wheelwright said.

While things don't look so rosy after last Saturday's 51-17 loss at East Lansing, the Gophers (5-2, 2-2 Big Ten) are still confident they can get an invitation to a top-tier bowl game.

But they really can't afford anything less than a 4-0 finish to the regular season to achieve that goal. And that will require, among other things, much better tackling and some consistency on offense.

"Our performance has been unacceptable," coach Glen Mason said.

A week ago, the players lamented their inability to make big plays against the Michigan Wolverines but sounded confident they'd fare better against the Spartans. Indeed, they had a couple of big plays against Michigan State, but couldn't manage anything else.

"Kind of turned into a nightmare," quarterback Bryan Cupito said.

Michigan State doubled Minnesota's yardage, 636-313.


"The main thing is we had a ton of missed tackles," Campbell said.

"You watch the film, it was like every play we played well with 10 guys," Campbell said. "It just takes one guy to make a missed assignment, resulting in a big play."

Or several big plays.

Michigan State's shortest score was a 10-yard TD run in the third quarter. Three Spartans runners averaged at least 7.2 yards per carry. Michigan State punted only twice.

"We would get them exactly where you'd want them, third-and-long," Mason said. "And they'd convert."

The Gophers, who host struggling Illinois for Saturday's homecoming game at the Metrodome, are now ranked among the bottom half in the Big Ten in total defense. But Mason was quick to point out the offense wasn't exactly lighting up the scoreboard.

"If you don't covert on offense, on third-down and fourth-and-short situations, you give the other team more opportunities," Mason said. "So those two things go hand-in-hand."

The Gophers powerful running game had only 102 yards, mostly because the Spartans stacked the box with nine defenders.


"Last game, everything broke down," Cupito said.

They'll have a good chance to fix it Saturday against the Fighting Illini, who are 0-4 in the Big Ten this year. Illinois is among four teams with winless conference records tied for eighth place in the Big Ten. The Gophers have sole possession of seventh place.

"We still have a chance to win out," Wheelwright said. "We've got to win out. We can't end our season on these two losses."

After Illinois, the Gophers play another struggling team at Indiana. But they have to close out the regular season with two tough games at Wisconsin and against Iowa.

But right now, Minnesota can't look too far ahead to its bowl fate. It needs to plug its defensive holes and start making some through opposing defensive lines.

"At least in my observation, their attitude has been excellent," Mason said. "They're eager to right the ship."

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