Underdog Gophers know they have to do better in Big Ten

BY foxsports • July 25, 2013

By JESSE TEMPLE FOXSportsWisconsin.com 
CHICAGO -- By all indications, Minnesota's bowl game appearance last season represented a step in the right direction. The team's first postseason appearance in three years provided the Gophers with hope following a three-win campaign and reason to believe coach Jerry Kill was turning around the program.

Those things are true. But appearances, as the old adage goes, can be deceiving. In reality, Minnesota was no better in the Big Ten in 2012 than it was in 2011 under Kill. The Gophers finished dead last in the Leaders Division with identical 2-6 records each season. The only distinguishing difference was Minnesota's ability to win all four of its nonconference games.

As Kill begins his third season in charge, the message is clear: A bowl game is nice, but competing in the Big Ten is paramount.

"We have to be better in the Big Ten," Kill said Thursday during the Big Ten media days. "Minnesota hasn't done that in a long time. Our goal for us to get where we want to go in the next three or four years, we've got to be better in the Big Ten."

Last season, the Gophers' statistics within the conference were perfectly mediocre, which illustrated their middle-of-the-road team.

Minnesota ranked ninth in the Big Ten in scoring offense (22.1 points per game) and eighth in scoring defense (24.7 points per game). The Gophers were one of five conference teams to allow more points than they scored. They were also 10th in total offense and fifth in total defense, seventh in rushing offense and eighth in rushing defense.

Even though Minnesota's season resulted in an appearance in The Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, the Gophers left with a 34-31 defeat against Texas Tech to finish 6-7. Minnesota was one of five bowl teams to end the year with a losing record.

"Any time you have a losing record, you didn’t accomplish enough," Gophers safety Brock Vereen said. "When you only have six wins, you didn’t accomplish enough. But what we did do was prove to ourselves that we have the ability to be at the highest level. It's a matter of bringing it all together."

Minnesota has key pieces in place to at least compete in the Big Ten. Quarterback Phillip Nelson returns for his sophomore season after unexpectedly burning a redshirt year halfway through last season. Running back Donnell Kirkwood (925 yards) and Rodrick Williams (261 yards) also return. Senior tackle Ra'Shede Hageman (35 tackles, six sacks) could develop into an all-conference player on defense.

Of course, the difficulty of Minnesota's Big Ten schedule in 2013 can't be denied. The Gophers likely will be considered underdogs in at least five of their eight conference games: Michigan, Northwestern, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan State. And there is no guarantee Minnesota will beat Iowa, Indiana or Penn State in the other games.

Vereen said Minnesota had embraced the role of the underdog because, really, players haven't had much choice.

"It's OK that somebody doesn’t necessarily have your name circled for months before they play you," Vereen said. "That doesn't mean you can't come out and punch them in the mouth.

"If you look over past years, they maybe don’t necessarily have a reason to. We wouldn’t want it any other way. That’s the best position to be in."

Added Kirkwood: "I don’t want to be circled. I like being the underdog. I feel like we're going to do it every game. Those preseason teams on our schedule, they probably aren't circling us either, and I'm glad. That’s how we surprise people."

Kill noted Minnesota was still searching for a so-called signature victory against a top-level program. The Gophers' two conference victories last season came against Purdue, which fired its head coach after the season, and Illinois, which went winless in the conference. In the past two seasons, Minnesota has lost to Nebraska, Michigan and Wisconsin by a combined score of 252-67.

Minnesota should enter Big Ten play 4-0 for a second straight season, particularly given an easy nonconference schedule against UNLV, New Mexico State, Western Illinois and San Jose State. The key, as usual, will be making bigger inroads in the Big Ten.

"People underrate us," Hageman said. "I love it. People don’t believe in us. We feed off that. I'm used to it. I knew going to Minnesota it was going to be like that. I could have gone to Wisconsin, Ohio State, Florida. Some top dog colleges. I feel like at Minnesota we have a chance to prove everybody wrong and put Minnesota on the map."

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