Here is the first part of a series where I try my hardest to break down the 2008 Gophers. It's a look back at a season of ups and downs, and a look ahead to a new start on campus.
Let's start with the good news.
The 2008 Minnesota Golden Gophers football team started out 7-1. They beat Bowling Green on the road, spoiled Illinois' Homecoming week, and finally vanquished the demons of West Lafayette. Their only loss before November came to an Ohio State team that was finally finding their offensive identity.
At best, the Gophers were going to their first Rose Bowl since 1961. At worst, at least they had a bowl berth. On top of this, the team was playing out it's final season in the HHH Metrodome, a stadium that became synonymous for uneven and disappointing play.
Then, reality set in.
Minnesota started off November by blowing a trap game against Northwestern on a fluke misplay by their most consistent player, Eric Decker. As an encore, they were completely dominated in a game they should have been fired up to play against a (then) 2-7 Michigan team.
Without Decker, they fought to a 21-7 lead on the road at Wisconsin, only to give up 28 points in the second half and lose 35-32. Coming home for the final game in the Metrodome, with Floyd of Rosedale on the line against Iowa, a great rivalry game was expected. Quickly, it became clear that this was not in order, as the Hawkeyes outrushed the Gophers 222-7 and won 55-0.
In the cooling-off period that comes between the regular season and the bowl weeks, several things become clear about the 2008 Golden Gophers. As usual, feel free to express you accolades or curses towards my opinion...
-The wins just are not that impressive.
At the time they were played, a number of early victories looked good, or at least encouraging. Naturally, the Northern Illinois and Montana State games were not ever going to be considered program-changing contests, but Florida Atlantic was expected to compete for a Sun Belt title, and Bowling Green was treated like the Red River Shootout by ESPN, due to the 2007 outcome (a 32-31 BGSU win).
In Big Ten play, the opening loss to Ohio State was expected, and it was not as ugly as it could have been. Then came the three straight wins (my parenthesis show the reaction of the media).
-Home vs. Indiana 16-7 (Holy hell, the Gophers just beat a Big Ten bowl team from last year!!! Sure, they were 2-2, but we beat them! This team might have a shot at respectability!)
-At Illinois 27-20 (Holy Hell, we just beat the Rose Bowl team from last year! On the road! At their homecoming! Boy, that Tim Brewster is a Maverick, isn't he? And how about that defense?! Oh wait, this always happens...Just wait until we lose at Purdue again.)
-At Purdue 17-6 (HOLY HELL!!!!!!!! WE JUST WON AT PURDUE!!!! Nevermind that the team couldn't move the ball against a 2-5 team that gave up 38 points to Notre Dame, this team is Rose Bowl bound!!!!)
Ok, so it was a bit much, but you get the point. Those wins simply do not look as good as they did.
-The losses were bad, but not terrible.
When it was all said and done, the Gophers lost five games to teams with a combined 37-23. Take out the Michigan game (which was the definition of a young team falling apart), and that number goes to 34-14.
They lost to teams that were better than them, and they lost bad. The last four games hurt and were tough to watch, but the results were not terribly shocking.
-In the words of Martin Luther, what does this mean?
Well, it can be looked at a few different ways.
The "boys will be boys" Theory
This was a young team with a spotty offensive line, only one dependable receiver, and a sophomore quarterback. The defense was the worst in the nation last year, and was filled with freshmen and JC stopgaps. As the season wore on, they wore out. They lost confidence after the Northwestern game, and as the opponents toughened up, the Gophers either gave up or pressed to hard. Either way, it spelled disaster.
The "Glass Ceiling" Theory
As we all remember from the Glen Mason era, this team has a habit of fast starts and awful endings. For one reason or another, Minnesota can not beat Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa, Wisconsin, and sometimes Northwestern. This is our fate. Much like being a Cubs fan, a Gopher Football fan must accept mediocrity, and be happy when they beat Indiana.
Tim Brewster is just like Glen Mason, who was just like Jim Wacker. New imaginative system, promising start...then nothing. But wait 'til hockey season!
The "Stepping Stone" Theory
This is my personal choice, so allow me to defend it. Anytime a 1-11 team wins seven games, it is time for optimism, not sadness. This is not like Mason's 2003 team, which squandered away a Rose Bowl trip on a fateful Friday night against Michigan. That team was led by seniors, and it was a disappointment that they could only get a Sun Bowl berth.
The 2008 Gophers were led by a sophomore quarterback, a junior stud receiver, an extremely young offensive line, and two freshman tailbacks. It will get better. The defense is getting faster, and is well coached under Ted Roof.
A bowl is a huge blessing, as it guarantees another five weeks of practice that showed it needs it (if I see another false start penalty after a big gain, I cannot be held accountable for my actions).
The recruiting looks good, and the on-campus stadium may mean that the Gophers will never have to hear another I...O...W...A cheer after a 3-and-out on their home field.
As of right now, regardless of how the team performs in a "YourNameHere.com" bowl game, this team is pointed in the right direction. In order to continue this, the University needs to hold on to Brewster (which will only get harder if his alma mater, Illinois, has another bad year), and make TCF Bank stadium THE Saturday afternoon destination for our state's hammered undergrads.
Brewster needs to continue his used car salesman act, and sell this program to players, high school coaches, the University, the state, ESPN, and anyone who will listen.
On the field, the team needs to gel. They need to get that swagger that all good Big Ten teams have. This will come with quality wins, national exposure, and a packed home stadium.
Is any of this guaranteed to happen? Absolutely not. But, with Brewster, the young team, and the new stadium, it is closer than it has been in a long time.
As a Golden Gopher fan, that sounds pretty good after that dismal 2007 season.