Gophers will mend, but is there hope?

MINNEAPOLIS — I could swear I'd seen this Gopher football team before.

Minnesota defensive lineman Hendrick Ekpe looks at the scoreboard late in the fourth quarter in the Gophers' loss to Wisconsin at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday.

MINNEAPOLIS — I could swear I'd seen this Gophers football team before.

Oh yeah, now I remember. It's the one that occupied the field when Jim Wacker was coach, and in Glen Mason's final years, and during Tim Brewster's tenure.

It's the one we'd all become so painfully familiar with for much of the past 25 years, but thought we might finally be done laying eyes on. You know, those Minnesota clubs that were so soft up the middle that they couldn't run the football. But even more painful, so weak up front defensively that they couldn't stop the run.

If you have a rooting interest in a football team, nothing's more painful than watching it overwhelmed in those two areas.

Now the Jerry Kill era, which started in 2011 and figured to continue even after he abruptly resigned for health reasons mid-season this year (his staff still in place), seemed to have shored that up.


No so fast. Anybody who watched Wisconsin dismantle the Gophers 31-21 Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium in a contest far more one-sided than that final spread suggests, knows Minnesota didn't just lay an egg in its season finale. The Gophers closed with a gigantic crack in their brick-by-brick foundation.

In losing this "rivalry" game with the Badgers for the 12th straight time, Minnesota allowed a punch-in-the-gut 257 yards rushing. And this to a team that ranked dead last in the Big Ten in rushing this season. And Minnesota's running totals? A measly 53 yards.

"We've got some things to work on, and I know that," Gophers defensive-coordinator-turned-head-coach Tracy Claeys said in his post-game press conference. "But things are a (heck) of a lot better than when we first got here (in 2011). We'll be back next year and ready to compete."

Better, but. . .

The hunch here is Claeys is half right. Yeah, the foundation is better than when Brewster left. But you'd hope so. Brewster left behind a well-documented mess, both in the classroom and on the field.

Things took a magical turn under Kill. They won eight games in 2013, then eight more in 2014 when Minnesota reached a New Years Day bowl game and Kill was named Big Ten Coach of the Year.

Kill spent the off-season with fans eating out of his hands, and prospective recruits — especially Minnesota kids — one by one saying yes to him. It's left the Gophers with one of the top 35 recruiting classes in the country for next year.

But then came the 2015 season and mounting expectations. Minnesota wasted no time in failing to live up to them, turning in a poor non-conference campaign, with the defense looking solid, but the offense anemic. It brought Minnesota three unimpressive wins and one understandable loss, to top-ranked TCU.


But that brick-by-brick foundation Kill was so proud of was already showing signs of wear. Injuries played a major role. Minnesota's offensive line became a disaster, with players hopping from one position to another to fill the gaps, and as many three starting offensive linemen out of the lineup at once.

Kill warned that as much abuse as that offense was taking from critics, that it could easily switch. His defense might be the problem later and the offense the solution.

He was right. Injuries again became the main problem. First it was the Gophers defensive backs going down in bunches, then late in the season the defensive linemen, including the team's best overall defender, tackle Steven Richardson.

Minnesota, patch-working its offensive line all season, never did become a consistent running team. And gradually, that defense fell apart. Never did it look worse than Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium.

So where are the Gophers as they head into next season, fresh off a disappointing 5-7 season, including 2-6 in the Big Ten?

Well, they're mending, that's for sure. Once that's complete, it's tough to say. The guess here is that they're two wins better than they were in 2015. And after that, who knows. Eight-win seasons all of a sudden seem dreamy.

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