The Minnesota Golden Gophers had a lot of opportunities and excuses to fold up the tents on Saturday afternoon against the USC Trojans. They could have done so after a sloppy first half of play that featured penalties, miscommunication, and allowing three touchdowns to star receiver Robert Woods. They certainly could have done it when their star quarterback began cramping up and needed to be replaced by a true freshman. In the past, that's almost certainly what would have happened.
But not with this team.
In Jerry Kill's debut as the Gophers' head football coach, the team pulled a complete 180 in the second half of play. After USC was dominant in the opening half, Kill kept his team on the sidelines during halftime, and proceeded to rip his team up one side and down the other. Now, I wasn't in attendance at the Coliseum or anything like that, so I don't know exactly what Kill said to his team. . .but whatever it was, it certainly turned out to be effective. When the teams came out of the locker room at halftime, it looked like a totally different football game.
After struggling on offense in the first half, the Gophers moved the ball significantly better in the second half. After getting repeatedly burned by Woods in the first half, the Gophers kept the USC offense. . .an offense led by a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback. . .completely off of the scoreboard after halftime. The Gophers looked much more like the team that won their final two games of 2010 and not the team that got off to a 1-9 start by losing to teams like South Dakota State. In this writer's opinion, that's a direct testament to the fact that the last two games of 2010 and the first game of 2011 were coached byand Jerry Kill, respectively, and not by Tim Brewster.
The Gophers were 24-point underdogs going into Saturday afternoon's game. They went into one of the most hostile environments in college football, fought until the very end, and came away with a two-point loss. MarQueis Gray, who has been labeled by numerous sources as one of the Big Ten's players to watch for the 2011 season, went down with cramps late in the third quarter with the Gophers trailing 19-10. In his place, Kill was forced to insert Max Shortell into the lineup. At this time last year, Shortell was getting Bishop Meige High School in Shawnee Mission, Kansas, ready to defend their state 4A high school football championship.
On Saturday, Shortell stepped into the breach and performed very well, leading the Gophers on a touchdown drive to get them within two. He showed good mobility, scrambling for a first down on 3rd and 8 on his very first college play. More importantly, he showed great poise as a passer, not allowing the harassment of the USC pass rush to affect him while leading the Gophers downfield. The only egregiously bad throw he made was his final one, the one that wound up being intercepted to seal the game for the Trojans. Shortell may have stirred up a mini quarterback controversy in Minnesota, but whether he sees extended time as the starter this season or not, he certainly gives Gopher fans a great deal of hope for the future.
Minnesota's new head coach engenders the same feeling of confidence. After the past four years, to see a Gopher football team actually play better in the second half is a welcome sight, to be certain.
The Gophers certainly aren't the most talented team in the Big Ten Conference this season, and they weren't the more talented team on the field on Saturday afternoon. But don't go trying to tell Jerry Kill or his players that. This team is going to kick and claw and bite and scratch for 60 minutes in every game they play this season, and when the smoke clears on the 2011 Big Ten season, there's a good chance that they're going to be a whole lot better than a lot of people would have expected them to be.