Gophers season recap: 2014 a step in right direction

For the second year in a row, the Gophers finished with eight victories when they had a chance to win more games. But several of those eight wins were big ones.

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MINNEAPOLIS — Success can be measured in a number of ways in the college football world. Victories. Rivalry trophies. Individual accolades. Championships.

On the heels of last Thursday’s 33-17 loss to Missouri in the Citrus Bowl, the Gophers’ football team finished the 2014 with an 8-5 record — the same record they had one year earlier. So, it’s fair to ask, was it a successful season for Minnesota?

Yes and no. If you ask fourth-year head coach Jerry Kill, though, 2014 was a step in the right direction.

"We’ve certainly moved the program forward," Kill said after the bowl game when reflecting on the season. "The seniors have done a great job. We had some tremendous moments with a tremendous group of kids that have bought in and worked their tail ends off. We’ve had some very high highs and we’ve had some lows."

If you’re going simply by victories alone, the Gophers didn’t take a step forward in that regard. Sure, it could be argued that Minnesota’s schedule in 2014 was tougher than the slate of games the Gophers had in 2013. But the fact of the matter is that, for the second year in a row, Minnesota finished with eight victories when it had a chance to win more games.

Several of those eight wins, however, were big ones. Minnesota defeated rival Michigan for the first time since 2005 and beat Nebraska on the road for the first time since 1960. The Gophers also beat Iowa to regain possession of the Floyd of Rosedale trophy. Those key wins seemed to reinvigorate the program through the latter portion of the regular-season schedule. The rivalry trophies were paraded about town as Gophers fans reveled in their team’s success.

"The tough thing is the same record as last year; that’s frustrating," said senior wide receiver Isaac Fruechte. "But I think we took a few steps with winning those big games with the Michigan win, the Iowa win and also with the Nebraska win back-to-back. That’s something we’ve got to continue to do."

Even in some of Minnesota’s losses, there were signs of progress. The Gophers hung tough on the road with a TCU team that went on to finish in the Top 10. Minnesota also kept it close with Ohio State, losing by just a touchdown to a Buckeyes team that will face Oregon in the national championship. Sure, there was a major hiccup at Illinois, but the Gophers have started to win the type of close games that they would have previously lost. And games against OSU in years past surely wouldn’t have been as competitive as this year’s matchup.

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When it comes to individual success, it’s hard to argue what Minnesota was able to accomplish this year. The Gophers boasted one of the top tight ends in college football in Maxx Williams, who has opted to turn pro after his redshirt sophomore season. Minnesota had the Big Ten’s top punter in Peter Mortell. Running back David Cobb set a new school record for most rushing yards in a season. Linebacker Damien Wilson and cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun also had breakout years on the defensive side of the ball.

Then of course there’s the category of championships. Minnesota’s goal at the start of the season was to win the Big Ten championship. The Gophers didn’t achieve that — Ohio State was crowned the conference champ — but Minnesota came within one victory of playing in the Big Ten title game. If the Gophers had won their season finale against Wisconsin, Minnesota would have faced Ohio State in Indianapolis. As it were, the Badgers topped the Gophers in Madison and went on to get routed by the Buckeyes, who are now playing in the national title game.

The fact that Minnesota was even in the discussion for a possible trip to Indy for the Big Ten title game has to be viewed as a step in the right direction for this program. A few years ago, being in that position was unthinkable. Now, Kill has his players believing they should — and can — compete for the conference crown every year.

At his previous stops at Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois, Kill rebuilt struggling programs and turned them into winners in just a few short years. He did the same at Minnesota through his first three seasons, going from three wins to six wins to eight last year. Kill reached the 10-win mark in his third year at those former schools, but wasn’t able to do so in 2014 with Minnesota. Yet things are no doubt tougher in the Big Ten. And even with last week’s bowl loss, the most recent season should be viewed as a success for the Gophers. Now the question remains: can that progress continue in 2015?

"I love the guys, and they played hard," Kill said. "And we hadn’t done this — I don’t know — in 52, 53 years. So hopefully we get used to it and work our tail end off to get back and take another step forward, because we’ve done it every year."

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