Without a December bowl victory to conclude the Gophers' enigmatic 2008 football season, Tim Brewster's second-year at the U helm will be looked upon in a similar (low) light as his first: a flop. Is that fair, after going from 1-11 to 7-5 and a bowl berth? No. But four-straight losses to conclude the regular season is the vibe that the wealth of Gopher fans will remember from this season. Unless, of course, Brewster can cap the campaign with a "W."
A bowl berth for a 7-5 bunch is really more of a symbolic gesture than a competitive one in that, outside of people connected with the program/school or sick gamblers, it's just a chance for the institution to get a little more recruiting pub and a few million dollars. Outside of that, most people, I believe, really only watch the top four or five bowls for a truly enjoyable, high-leveled, and wholly competitive football experience. But more on bowls below.
Let us first look back for a brief moment on the 7-1 season that was, and the 7-5 tally that we'll take to a second-season game. In most minds, despite the overt turnaround in wins, '08 will be reflected upon as the season of the post-Halloween freak out. The Gophers hosted the now-24th ranked Northwestern Wildcats on November 1st. The Wildcats entered the contest sans both their starting quarterback and top running back. On that spooky Saturday of yore, backup quarterback Mike "The Metamorphosis" Kafka proceeded to rush for a QB school-record 217 yards. But despite that crazy total, Minnesota had the ball with less than a minute remaining and the game tied at 17's. With 26-seconds left, the Gophers, at Homecoming, before nearly 55,000 fans, remained aggressive, pursuing a late score for victory. Brendan Smith's ensuing interception -- tipped off the hands of All-American candidate Eric Decker -- soon erased our hopeful ascension to 8-1, as the d-back sprinted nearly 50-yards for the winning score.
The beginning of the end, no doubt. Personally, I'll side with Brewster in his decision not to run out the clock and play for overtime victory. Our team, while embattled on that day, was still hot, at home, and again, hosting a then-deflated Northwestern squad at Homecoming. But the dice didn't roll toward our sideline-- we crapped out, and have since displayed little of that 7-1 spark, dropping three more in-a-row, all trophy games.
Stats back the sadness. In their first eight games (a few against non-conference creampuffs), the Gophers had a plus-15 turnover margin, converted on 37 percent of 3rd downs, and allowed just one rusher over 76 yards. They outscored opponents 196-137. The now-combined records of those eight opponents? 44-48 (.478). The records of our opponents in the last four losses? 27-21 (.563). The schedule got tougher, and so did the Sunday stat-sheet hangovers.
In their final four, the Gophers were a minus-3 in regard to turnover margin, converted on just 31 percent of 3rd downs, and allowed top opposing runners to crest 116 yards on three occasions. They were outscored 143-55.
Of additional concern on the fields of larger score are both the facts that the Gophers were the most penalized team in the Big Ten, in penalties (76) and in penalty yards (654) assessed. That's nine more penalties than last year, when they were tied for 5th worst in the conference in regard to the former.
According to experts and bowl scheduling scenarios, it appears the Gophers will appear in either the Insight Bowl (New Year's Eve, Tempe, Ariz.) or the Motor City Bowl (December 26th, Detroit, Mich.). The latter could provide some actually intrigue outside of the aforementioned player's parents or local wagering interests, in that said bowl matches the Big Ten and the MAC conferences. Ball State, at an impressive 11-0 heading into their game tonight against Western Michigan, is a strong candidate to oppose the Gophers in said showdown should they prevail this eve.
Pitting the Gophers against an undefeated squad on the Friday after Christmas (on which that is the lone bowl game) offers the opportunity for the Maroon & Gold to conclude this season with an earnest soupçon of positivity. A loss, and '08 won't really be remembered at all, eschewed and drowned out by the voices of enthusiasm and hope filling TCF Bank Stadium next year.