Gophers motivated by ’08’s losing skid

Danny Daly

Tim Brewster made his ambitions abundantly clear upon becoming Minnesota’s head coach in 2007. During his first week on the job, the former NFL and Mack Brown assistant made bold statements like: “My expectations from Day One are going to be to win the Big Ten Championship,” and, “We’re not interested in any rebuilding process.”

Then the Golden Gophers kicked off the Brewster era by going 1-11.

But through eight games last year, it looked like Brewster might not have been so crazy after all. Minnesota boasted a 7-1 record and was ranked No. 17 in the polls, almost a complete 180 that few outside the program could have expected. But a loss to Northwestern was the beginning of a downward spiral – one that Minnesota is determined not to repeat.

“This year, we’re really focusing on finishing,” senior defensive tackle Garrett Brown said at Big Ten Media Day in July. “Making it to the top 25 was a big accomplishment, but we have a lot more aspirations than that.”

The Gophers lost their last five contests by an average of more than three touchdowns and gave up 37 points per game. Minnesota also suffered its worst Big Ten loss ever, a 55-0 drubbing by Iowa in the final game at the Metrodome.

The pressure of increased national attention played a factor in the late-season swoon. The Gophers hadn’t won seven games since 2005, the last time they were ranked.

“(It was a matter of) just not being used to it,” senior linebacker Lee Campbell said. “(There was) a lot of hype, and maybe we bought into it too much. We need to stay focused on the things that won us those seven games.”

Campbell and his teammates aren’t going to forget their poor play down the stretch anytime soon. Minnesota is one of the most experienced teams in the Big Ten, returning 19 starters from last season.

Brewster viewed it as an encouraging year for the direction of the program, even though his team didn’t win after Oct. 25. It was Minnesota’s first winning season in three years and first trip to the postseason during his tenure.

“I don’t look at the way the season ended in a negative way,” Brewster said. “I look at it in a very positive way – last year we took some great steps to improve as a program, but we also learned what the next couple of steps need to be.”

Many of the problems that flared up a year ago also seem to have been fixed.

“Depth became an issue for us, strength was an issue for us, and so we’ve addressed those issues,” Brewster said. “We’ve got some great competition across the board, and without question, we’re a much more physical team.”

The Gophers have shown that so far. They hung close with No. 8 California last weekend, recovering from an early 14-0 deficit to tie the game at 21 early in the fourth quarter. Running back and Heisman Trophy frontrunner Jahvid Best proved to be too much in the end, but a 35-21 defeat was a respectable showing.

The Gophers beat only two teams with winning records last year, neither of whom came from one of the six major conferences. The non-conference schedule presented a stiffer challenge this season, and Minnesota responded. It notched wins against a Syracuse team that just beat NU and an Air Force team that won eight games in 2008 and was fresh off a 72-0 win. A date with perennial Pac-10 power Southern California looms next season.

A new wave of young talent is also beginning to make its mark. Brewster, who used to be the recruiting coordinator at Texas, and his staff put together back-to-back impressive recruiting hauls, highlighted by the No. 17 class in 2008 as rated by Rivals.

“We have made excellent progress – we’re an ascending football program,” Brewster said. “We’ve recruited extremely well, and, as everyone knows, that’s the name of the game, that’s the key to success.”

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