Do you all remember the game under the Kill regime where you thought the defense was going to be pretty good? Not when you realized the defense was legit and began enjoying sustained success, which probably happened two years ago; rather, that first series of plays where you had an inkling these coaches might really know what they're doing. That first moment that you hope.
For me, it was against Iowa in 2011. It's a little odd, since, from a defensive perspective, we had just been murderballed in the previous four games (37 points allowed by [REDACTED], 58 to Michigan, 45 to Purdue(!) and 41 to Nebraska) and would proceed to get pisspounded by for most of the rest of the schedule (31 points allowed to Michigan State and 42 to the Fighting Russell Wilsons). Further, it wasn't an incredible defensive performance, since we gave up 472 yards of offense, including 252 to Marcus Coker, who rumbled for an impressive 7.9 yards per carry.
But, and maybe this is benefit of hindsight talking, there was a little something there. We had three sacks in the game, to which you might say, uh, and? But remember, we only had eight sacks for the entire 2010 season (not a typo), so that was a pretty big deal. Recall, also, that we had some grossly inferior and undersized talent playing in the defense that year, particularly in the secondary. That we were able to do anything at all in stopping an opposing team was a testament to the coaches. Yes, Iowa was pretty ordinary that season, but there was still something that seemed different enough to take note.
Of course, it wasn't a straight line to the very-good-to-great defense we have today. It was, at best, stepwise, and there were a number of missteps and regressions along the way. But there was a moment of positivity we hadn't seen in a while. We needed something to be excited about and there it was. Something to tell us that maybe the near future wouldn't be as bad as the recent past.
Well, Saturday's game was the first time I've felt that tickle of hope for the offensive side of the ball since Iowa last year and probably the 2014 Nebraska game before that.
The Gophers offense has been bi-polar through Kill's tenure, with moments of sheer brilliance followed by long, tedious periods of bleh. It's particularly vexing, because you know the coaching staff has the capability to be dynamic and trust the players to execute - you know because they have allowed it to happen and you've seen it. But, like a thief in the night, Limegrover steals your optimism and returns to the offensive morass that could sap the fun from a keg stand.
So, why is it different this time? Why am I allowing myself to love again?
To me, it is because of who the staff counted on to execute. While there were upperclassmen contributing to Saturday's offensive performance, we saw four freshmen, two of which are true freshmen, provide a spark this offense has lacked all season.
Our skill position players for the last several seasons, outside of Cobb and Maxx, could be best described as "workmanlike." Not terrifically flashy, they would try to grind you to dust through hard work, a blue-collar attitude and a willingness to sacrifice themselves for the good of the team [/end cliche generator].
Saturday, we saw a collection of talent that transcends that. Smith looked like Cobb reborn. Brooks, wearing Cobb's old number, conjured images of both Barber and Maroney, as he alternated between seeking contact against an off-balance defender and exploding into the open field for a 40-yard touchdown. Still and Gentry with their acrobatics, body control and athleticism have been absent from the wide receiver corps for nigh on a decade. Gentry, in particular, accelerates like a tremendous machine (h/t Chic Anderson) which, at 6'4", open up the deep threat potential in ways we haven't seen in some time.
Immense potential. And, for this season, that may be all that we see. Like the defense of four years ago, there will be setbacks and regressions. Youth, in the college game, rarely begets consistency. But in entrusting four freshmen to play a central role in the offense this weekend, particularly in a high-pressure, end-game situation, this staff demonstrated a willingness to take risks that were not part of the previous offensive breakthroughs.
We saw the future of the offense on Saturday. We needed something to be excited about, and there it was. Once again, we had hope.