Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
The first eight games of the 2008 season showed how far Minnesota has come. The last four games showed how far the Gophers still need to go.
Minnesota responded well from the darkest season in team history, which featured only one victory and new lows for defensive futility. The Gophers surged to a 7-1 start behind opportunistic defense, intelligent quarterback play and discipline on both sides of the ball.
Head coach Tim Brewster not only blended several key junior college players into the mix but saw improvement from holdovers like quarterback Adam Weber, defensive end Willie VanDeSteeg and cornerback Marcus Sherels. First-year defensive coordinator Ted Roof oversaw a unit that led the Big Ten with 30 takeaways, boasting seven players with multiple interceptions or forced fumbles. Weber and wideout Eric Decker formed the league's most consistent passing combination and Minnesota won three of its first four road games.
The closing stretch exposed some weaknesses Minnesota had masked for the first two months. A shaky offensive line and a nonexistent rushing attack hamstrung the unit, and turnovers and defensive breakdowns began to pile up. The Gophers imploded against archrival Iowa, suffering their worst loss (55-0) in Big Ten play.
Still, a 7-5 record exceeded most expectations for Minnesota, and a young core raises hope for 2009 and beyond.
Offensive MVP -- Quarterback Adam Weber
Like the rest of the team, Weber had his struggles down the stretch, but he made several important strides this fall. The sophomore ranked third in the Big Ten in passing average (215.4 ypg) and threw only two interceptions in the first seven games. He helped Minnesota to a road win against Illinois just six days after undergoing knee surgery. Decker also deserves a mention here after leading the Big Ten with 76 receptions.
Defensive MVP -- Defensive end Willie VanDeSteeg
VanDeSteeg showed that with two healthy wrists, he's one of the Big Ten's most ferocious pass rushers. The senior earned first-team all-conference honors from the media after leading Minnesota with 9.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss. He was named National Defensive Player of the Week after recording three sacks and a forced fumble that led to a touchdown against Illinois.
Turning point -- Oct. 11 at Illinois
The Gophers came in at 5-1 but hadn't registered a signature win. They were searching for their first Big Ten road victory since Nov. 11, 2006. Facing Juice Williams and the high-powered Illinois offense, Minnesota forced three turnovers and received a strong performance from running back DeLeon Eskridge (124 rush yards, 2 TDs). The Gophers became bowl eligible and earned a national ranking.
Minnesota heads to the Insight Bowl as a heavy underdog against Kansas, but an upset of the Jayhawks would take the sting off a rough closing stretch. The future definitely looks bright for the Gophers, who return several standouts on both sides of the ball and open their new stadium on Sept. 12, 2009. If new offensive line coach Tim Davis can improve the play up front and some holes are filled on the defensive line, Minnesota should take another step forward next fall.