The 2009 edition of the Minnesota Gophers Football team can be described in a number of ways. Puzzling. Disappointing. Frustrating. If you look at how the season finished, the Gophers can consider themselves lucky to be in any bowl.
There are two ways that the Gophers can take their invitation to the Insight Bowl in Tempe, Arizona on New Year's Eve: They can look at it as a free trip to the desert in the middle of a brutal winter or they can take the bull by the horns and give themselves a much needed boost heading into the 2010 season.
This team certainly needs a shot in the arm. They need a boost to give a little momentum back to a program that gradually lost steam over the season.
The 2009 season was supposed to be different. After more than a quarter century off campus in the Metrodome, the Gophers moved back to an open-air stadium on campus. Coach Brewster brought in back-to-back, highly-regarded recruiting classes, talent was on the rise, and optimism was as well.
The season opener didn't go as smoothly as some would have liked, but a win in Syracuse followed by an exciting win over a pesky Air Force squad to open the new stadium had Gopher fans smiling.
The Golden Bears of California came into Minneapolis with a potential Heisman candidate in Jahvid Best and a team ranked in the Top 10. The Gophers gave Cal all they could handle for more than 3 quarters until the Bears pulled away late. Still, there was reason to think the team could be alright.
The Gophers showed they could run the ball in a win at Northwestern, but a loss in the Big 10 home opener to Wisconsin was tough for fans to swallow. The Gophers bounced back with a homecoming victory over Purdue. Then the wheels fell off.
The offense looked pathetic in a shutout loss to Penn State. The first-team offense was shutout again the next week. Making matters worse, star wide receiver Eric Decker's career effectively ended when he went down with an ankle injury against Ohio State.
The team returned home on Halloween night and showed they were down, but not out. The offense exploded for 42 points in a victory over Michigan State. That explosion proved to be a mirage.
The offense struggled mightily during the last three games, failing to score a touchdown at home against South Dakota State on the road in Iowa City. Still 6-6 was good enough to earn an invitation to a bowl and the Gophers answered when Tempe came calling.
A victory in the Insight Bowl won't save the Gophers season, but it would give the team some much needed confidence. Their opponent, the Iowa State Cyclones, will provide them with a tough test.
The Cyclones are 6-6 like the Gophers. They have a first-year coach in Paul Rhoads who's infused some enthusiasm into the program. While they've had their struggles on offense, the Cyclones play excellent defense, not exactly the type of squad that a team who's been struggling offensively likes to see.
The Cyclones haven't been in a bowl since 2005, the Gophers are making their third appearance in Tempe over that time frame. The Gophers should have an advantage when it comes to bowl game experience, but that won't matter if the offense can't execute.
Thursday evening will show what the Gophers have learned. It's been about six weeks since the Gophers scored an offensive touchdown. If the Gophers offense can't figure out the Cyclone defense early, it could be a long night in Arizona for the smattering of Gopher fans who are making the trip down.