Watching Minnesota play football a couple weeks after the Michigan-Minnesota game, I was struck by just how different the Gophers looked. Against the Wolverines Minnesota couldn't seem to get out of its own way. Michigan — a team that no one would accuse of having a pounding run game — bullied its way to over 100 yards on the ground and stifled Minnesota's offense with the bend-not-break style that would falter later in the year. Michigan won that game by nearly 30 points.
In recent years, this would be a microcosm of Minnesota's season. A blowout loss against a Michigan team that wasn't in great shape itself.
However, the game against Michigan (and the week before against Iowa) were something of outliers sandwiched in between two four game winning streaks. Minnesota stormed through the non-conference, winning four games against overmatched opponents. After the Michigan game, Minnesota would go on to further extend Northwestern's streak of dismal losses, outmuscle Nebraska at home, keep up with Indiana's fast-paced offense, and finally, Minnesota took Penn State to the woodshed, building a 24-10 lead in the first half and holding onto it through the end of the game.
All of this happened while Jerry Kill was dealing with another season of seizures and the ill-conceived media blowback that followed.
Sure, the end of the season took some wind out of Minnesota's sails. Back to back losses to Michigan State and Wisconsin to close the regular season weren't idea, although both were somewhat explainable as those teams were two of the three clear top teams in the conference. And then there is the bowl loss to Syracuse.
But looking at the mid-season lull and the slow end isn't the point. This is Minnesota, and the more important thing to focus on is the positives. Eight wins, a bowl appearance, and a .500 record in the Big Ten. What's more, Minnesota further established the identity it is looking to have under Kill: a power running team that controls both lines of scrimmage.
Of last year's offensive weapons, only Philip Nelson is gone from the team (and likely football altogether after an assault that could lead to significant legal troubles). On the other side of the ball Minnesota will need to replace some beef up front, but the defense is still trending upward.
The Minnesota rebuilding project was never going to be quick. The Gophers under Tim Brewster were abysmal and the roster was gutted. However, three wins to six wins to eight wins is progress, and while next season may not see another two or three win improvement, consistency at this level would be a welcome sign.
Minnesota isn't close to its old-time glory days, but it is closer to being a factor in the Big Ten title race on a consistent basis. After all these years, that's the kind of progress that can warm a cold Gopher fan heart.