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College football: Bowl-eligible Gophers set bigger goals

Reuters Minnesota tight end Maxx Williams runs with the ball against the Nebraska Cornhuskers on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. The Gophers won 34-23.

The Gophers’ historic win over Nebraska has them thinking big, as in really big.

Minnesota takes a 2-2 conference record into Saturday’s game at Indiana, which has defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys pointing out the Gophers are in contention for the title in the Big Ten’s Legends Division.

“Two losses still have a chance to win the division,” Claeys said in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “Three doesn’t. If you lose three, you don’t have a chance. But up to this point still, if you only have two losses in your division on our side, you’re still going to have an opportunity.”

That idea seems far-fetched, but the idea of beating Nebraska seemed equally far-fetched a week ago. After falling behind 10-0, the Gophers took control of the game in a 34-23 win, their first victory over the Cornhuskers since 1960. The fans who attended the game at TCF Bank Stadium stormed the field when the game ended to help the players celebrate the win, which also made Minnesota bowl eligible for the second straight season.

Minnesota hasn’t won seven regular season games since 2008 so it’s easy to see why the players are feeling confident.

“We’ve always had the talent,” defensive back Brock Vereen said in the Star Tribune. “When we play as well as we can, we can play with anybody.”

Claeys, who is filling in while coach Jerry Kill is on medical leave, wants to make sure the Gophers aren’t too over-confident going into the Indiana game. Although the Hoosiers are 3-4 overall and 1-2 in the conference, their offense will give Minnesota a stern test. Indiana leads the Big Ten in passing (342.7 yards a game) and ranks second in the league in scoring (42.4 points) and total offense (514 yards).

“I worry about handling the success now,” Claeys said in the Star Tribune. “You have got to go through the same process to win this week that you did last week. And if you don’t do that, they’re good enough to put a big number on you in a hurry.”

The Gophers, 6-2 overall, are off to their best start since going 7-1 in 2008. Kill, who has missed the last three games on the sidelines while getting treatment for his epilepsy, watched the latest win from the coaches’ booth. He did the same thing in the victory over Northwestern and will again be in the booth for the Indiana game. Kill has been attending practices, but there’s no timetable for when he’ll resume his usual head coaching duties.

“The coaches and players have a tremendous amount of respect for coach Kill,” Claeys said in the Star Tribune. “As coaches and players, we’re working our hardest to make him proud. That guy means so much to all of us. He’s the most competitive person that I’ve ever been around. But he’s also the most caring person that I’ve been around. If we don’t perform well, he’s going to feel guilty. He’s going to blame it on himself.”

“The way that he can inspire us without even being down there, it’s unbelievable,” Vereen said in the Star Tribune.

Notes, quotes


n RB David Cobb moved up to No. 1 on the depth chart two weeks ago and it doesn’t look like he plans on giving up the job. Cobb had 31 carries for a career-high 138 yards against Nebraska. The junior hit the holes quickly and broke tackles to pick up additional yardage. Cobb also caught a pass for a 21-yard gain. That performance came after he gained 103 yards on 20 carries against Northwestern.

n DT Ra’Shede Hageman recorded only three tackles against Nebraska, but he certainly impacted the game. He had two tackles for a loss, including a sack for a loss of eight yards. It seemed like Hageman was in Nebraska’s backfield all afternoon. He was penalized for two facemask penalties as he was putting pressure on quarterback Taylor Martinez.

n WR Donovahn Jones didn’t see much action in the first seven games, but the freshman took advantage of his opportunity to play against Nebraska. Lined up as a receiver, he had four carries for 42 yards, including a 20-yarder. A quarterback in high school, Jones has only one reception and six carries for the season, but could be a valuable weapon as he becomes more familiar with the offense.

n K Chris Hawthorne came with big expectations when he transferred from North Carolina State two years ago, but those hopes soon turned sour. He lost his job to walk-on Jordan Wettstein in 2011 and saw little action. Wettstein’s graduation left the kicking job open and Hawthorne won it in fall camp. He’s had a strong season and was named Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week for his performance in the Nebraska game. Hawthorne made all four of his extra points and hit field goals of 45 yards, tying his longest kick of the season, and 26 yards.

SERIES HISTORY: Minnesota is 37-25-3 against Indiana, but is 6-16-2 in road games in the series. The teams haven’t played since 2008, a 16-7 win at home for the Gophers.

QUOTE TO NOTE: “You dream about being able to switch this thing around. The way coach Kill runs his programs, we knew that we were going to have success and it was just a matter of time before we really started rolling.” — Quarterback Philip Nelson, in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, after Minnesota’s win over Nebraska.

Strategy and personnel


Scouting the running game: The Gophers dominated Nebraska with their running game. Minnesota picked up 271 yards on the ground. Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover came up with a good game plan by sending a receiver in motion and then hitting the defense with a play between the tackles. Nebraska had no answer as the Gophers ran the ball well the entire game. David Cobb picked up 138 yards while quarterback Philip Nelson gained 55. Receivers Donovahn Jones, Isaac Fruechte and Derrick Engel combined to rush for 68 yards on sweeps and misdirection plays.

Scouting the passing game: It was Philip Nelson’s turn to take over the offense against Nebraska. Mitch Leidner started, but was pulled in the first quarter. The passing game wasn’t needed thanks to the fact Minnesota gained 271 yards rushing, but Nelson played a solid game. He completed 7 of 15 passes for 152 yards with a touchdown. Nelson’s 33-yard TD pass to Derrick Engel in the second quarter put the Gophers ahead 14-10, a lead they didn’t relinquish. Drew Godger led the team with three receptions for 68 yards.

Scouting the run defense: The Gophers struggled to shut down Nebraska’s strong running game, but allowed a minimum of big plays. Minnesota gave up 189 net yards rushing with 165 coming from Ameer Abdullah. However, his longest run of the day was 22 yards. Quarterback Taylor Martinez had Nebraska’s longest run of the day, a 35-yarder, but that came as the result of a strong pass rush that forced him out of the pocket.

Scouting the pass defense: The Gophers turned in their best performance of the season against Nebraska with four sacks and constant pressure on quarterback Taylor Martinez. Theiren Cockran (1.5), Ra’Shede Hageman and Alex Keith (each with one) and Martez Shabazz (one-half) were credited with the sacks. Because of injuries, safety Brock Vereen started at cornerback again last week and played another solid game.

Scouting the special teams: Peter Mortell averaged only 35 yards on five punts against Nebraska, but he had two kicks inside the 20-yard line one punt that went 43 yards. Kicker Chris Hawthorne was named Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week after hitting two field goals and all four of his extra points. The Gophers have been trying to replace the injured Marcus Jones in the return game. Derrick Engel returned two punts against Nebraska.


n RB Rodrick Williams missed the Nebraska game because of a foot injury. He didn’t play against Northwestern for disciplinary reasons.

n CB Marcus Jones, who had a kickoff and punt return for scores in the first two games of the season, has been sidelined by an ankle injury.

n CB Martez Shabazz, who separated his shoulder against Michigan and missed the Northwestern game, returned last week.

n CB Derrick Wells has seen limited action the last two weeks because of a shoulder injury. He’s been bothered by the injury most of the season and hurt it again in the Michigan game.

n RB Berkley Edwards has yet to play this season after injuring his knee in fall practice. He could get a redshirt year.

n CB Briean Boddy-Calhoun will miss the rest of the season because of a torn ACL in his left knee. He’ll get a medical redshirt season and return as a junior next year.