Next step for first-place Minnesota is to finish strong
Minneapolis — Resiliency will be as important for Minnesota the rest of the season as its most tangible strength of running the ball.
Last week's win over Purdue provided plenty of time to polish both of those attributes.
The comeback victory that left the Gophers (6-1, 3-0) alone in first place in the Big Ten's West Division also set them up for another test, of their ability to maintain a narrow focus and a relentless pursuit of improvement amid increasing recognition of this program's progress.
"It's great to be excited, all those kind of things. Gaining confidence, that's good. Finding ways to win, sometimes you've just got to find a way win, and we did that," coach Jerry Kill said Tuesday. "But as coaches, the only thing that matters is at the end of the season where you're at, really. You've got to keep your players grounded."
Lose this Saturday at struggling Illinois and, well, the buzz will be quickly quieted.
"You don't want to be a team that peaks early, and that's not to say you don't want to be a team that doesn't perform well in the early games. But if we're playing our best football in mid-October then we're in trouble," defensive tackle Cameron Botticelli said.
Favored by nearly two touchdowns to beat the Boilermakers, the Gophers won the hard way after an 11-point halftime deficit.
"I think that's maturity. A mature team says, 'OK, these are the adjustments we need to make from the coaching staff,' and then makes those on the field," Botticelli said. "Who knows if we could've done that last year? This year we did it."
The Gophers have won four straight games at Illinois, last losing there in the 2001 season when the Illini played in the Sugar Bowl. The Illini (3-4, 0-3) will be the underdogs, too, a role the Gophers are more accustomed to. They even shout that word sometimes when they break up a huddle in practice.
"People always overlooked us, and that's what gave us the motivation," wide receiver K.J. Maye said.
The final four games are daunting: Iowa and Ohio State at home, followed by trips to Nebraska and Wisconsin. But if the Gophers beat Illinois, they'll be undefeated halfway through conference play and still in sole possession of first place as late as mid-November. That's when the lessons learned and confidence gained from these midseason games will truly become valuable.
With a spot in the conference championship game remaining a realistic goal, particularly given the likelihood that the West winner will have one or two losses, the stakes have increased for the Gophers. Not that the coaches would make a point of mentioning that.
"But they're smart enough to know all that. I don't have to tell them," Kill said.
All four of Mitch Leidner's longest completions (all greater than 35 yards) have come in the last two games, a sign of an offense growing into more than just running back David Cobb. The Gophers, too, have had a conference player of the week winner on both defense and special teams after each of the last two games. Safety Cedric Thompson and kicker Ryan Santoso were the honorees this time. But those are relatively modest reflections of a team's prowess.
"Are we close to being as good as we can be? No. No, we're not. So we have a lot of room for improvement. You can see that on film in all three phases," Kill said.