Minnesota Is Just a Passing Game Away from Being a Contender

Andrew Coppens@@andycoppensContributor IDecember 6, 2013

EAST LANSING, MI - NOVEMBER 30:  Philip Nelson #9 of the Minnesota Golden Gophers looks to throw a pass in the fourth quarter of the game against the Michigan State Spartans at Spartan Stadium on November 30, 2013 in East Lansing, Michigan. The Spartans defeated the Golden Gophers 14-3.  (Photo by Mark A. Cunningham/Getty Images)
Mark A. Cunningham/Getty Images

Minnesota's regular season ended with a 14-3 loss to Michigan State, yet the Gophers' year was one of the more surprising events in the Big Ten in 2013.

The Gophers finished the regular season 8-4, and outside of a loss to the Michigan Wolverines, the Gophers were competitive in every game this season.

No one could say that in 2012, and a lot of it was about a running game that few teams could really stop all season long. The Gophers averaged 200.9 yards a game and 4.4 yards a carry this season, placing them fifth in rushing in their conference.

However, if Minnesota wants to take the next step and become a true contender, it needs to find a passing game. 

There were glimpses of a pass game being there at times this season, but for the most part the Gophers had to rely on their ground game. 

Just how much though? Minnesota ran the ball 548 times this season, compared to just 237 attempts in the passing game. 

Oct 5, 2013; Ann Arbor, MI, USA; Michigan Wolverines defensive back Raymon Taylor (6) breaks up a pass to Minnesota Golden Gophers wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky (82) in the second half at Michigan Stadium. Michigan won 42-13. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osento
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The gulf is even bigger in scoring, where the Gophers had 23 rushing touchdowns to just 10 passing TDs in the regular season. 

A solid run game can win you football games, but when your defense falters you also need a pass game you can rely on. 

Looking into the future, signs point to a team that is going to be capable of playing with more balance, based on the results of this season alone. 

In the first six games, Minnesota was averaging 116.8 yards a game passing and had just three touchdowns to five interceptions. 

Over the final six games of the season, the Gophers upped their passing average to 166.8 and threw for seven touchdowns to just two interceptions.

That may not seem like much of an improvement, but given the quarterback and wide receiver shuffle that went on the improvement was stark. 

No two games were more indicative of the Gophers being close, but just not close enough, than the final two contests against Wisconsin and Michigan State. 

Minnesota threw for just 83 yards against Wisconsin, but had quarterback Philip Nelson and his receivers been on the same page on just a few more passes, the 20-7 scoreline would've looked a lot different. 

The opportunities were there for the Gophers to hit in the pass game, but it just never clicked.

Nelson was just 7-of-23 on that day, but he missed open receivers who could've kept drives going or score at least four or five times. 

Against Michigan State, the story was more of the same. Nelson went 6-of-18 for 125 yards and again was just off to a few receivers. 

Those numbers indicate a team that is still looking to find its identity in the pass game. Injuries and a youthful group of receivers didn't help in trying to find an identity in the pass game midway through the season.

Heading into its bowl game and looking towards next season, Minnesota needs to find a more consistent passing game.  

Should they do that, the Gophers could go from a decent team to a team capable of competing with the Nebraskas and Wisconsins in the new Big Ten West Division. 

With Philip Nelson and the vast majority of the wide receivers back (just two of them were seniors this season), there is hope that they can all grow together and give this team a more balanced attack when needed. 


*Andy Coppens is Bleacher Report's lead writer for the Big Ten. You can follow him on Twitter: @ andycoppens.