Minnesota had the Big Ten's most experienced team this fall, though at times the Gophers didn't look like it.
An offensive makeover led to significant growing pains on that side of the ball. Quarterback Adam Weber, a third-year starter, struggled to find a rhythm in Jedd Fisch's pro-style system, especially after superstar wide receiver Eric Decker went down with a foot injury. More troubling was the fact that Minnesota ended up as one of the Big Ten's most penalized teams for the second consecutive season.
The Gophers' veteran presence showed up on defense, as the team boasted arguably the league's best group of linebackers with Lee Campbell, Nate Triplett and Simoni Lawrence. Two senior defensive tackles and standout cornerback Traye Simmons helped the defense hold several teams in check. Kevin Cosgrove's unit is the biggest reason why Minnesota will play in a bowl for the second consecutive season.
Decker's injury was a major blow for the Gophers, who played a challenging schedule and notched decent wins against Northwestern, Air Force and Michigan State. They also had good moments against both Cal and Wisconsin. But the offensive struggles really showed up in the second half of the season, as Minnesota endured two shutouts in Big Ten play and nearly a third at Ohio State. Head coach Tim Brewster's struggles in rivalry games continued, as Minnesota fell short against both Wisconsin and Iowa.
Offensive MVP: Eric Decker. It says something when the offensive MVP missed half of the season, but Decker was simply that good. He could have made a serious run for the Biletnikoff Award had he stayed healthy, and he still led Minnesota in receptions (50), receiving yards (758) and receiving touchdowns (5). Decker's brilliant performance against Cal still resonates with me, and the Big Ten coaches selected him first-team all-conference despite his injury.
Defensive MVP: Lee Campbell. Campbell really stepped up nicely as a senior, finishing third in the Big Ten with 112 tackles, including a league-high 65 solo stops. He stood out on special teams with two blocked kicks and was very effective in pass coverage with an interception and six passes defended. Honorable mentions go to both Triplett and Simmons.
Turning point: Decker's injury in a 38-7 loss to Ohio State on Oct. 24 really hurt the Gophers, though the offense already had started to struggle a bit. Minnesota briefly turned things around with a wild win on Halloween night against Michigan State, but came out flat the next week against a woeful Illinois team.
What's next: Minnesota's immediate destination is Tempe, Ariz., where it will play in the Insight Bowl for the second straight season and for the third time in the last four seasons. But where is Minnesota really headed as a program? If Brewster returns for 2010, he needs to develop heralded recruits into stars and get the offense moving. The Gophers need to show they're closer a Big Ten title than they were when they dismissed Glen Mason.