Tom Dienhart, Senior Writer, October 11, 2014

MINNEAPOLIS — Is it OK for Minnesota to start dreaming about a Big Ten West title? You betcha.

It?s still early. Heck, the leaves are still on the trees and no Halloween fun-sized candy bars have been passed out. Still, the Golden Gophers took another step toward the front of the line in the West with what best can be described as ?methodical? 24-17 win vs. Northwestern, which brought a three-game winning streak to Minneapolis.

Now, Minnesota is one of the hottest teams in what looks like a wide-open Big Ten West. The Golden Gophers have won three in a row. And they are 6-2 in their last eight Big Ten games.


?You have to understand that we played a good football team,? Jerry Kill said. ?We have to keep moving forward and we have to understand that we have to get better. But we?re also getting better in finding a way to win and that?s all that matters at the end of the day.?


It?s time for this program to forge some memories that aren?t black-and-white. Nothing against all-time Gophers greats like Bruce Smith, Bronko Nagurski, Carl Eller and Bobby Bell, among others from a bygone era. But Minnesota needs a new era of greatness. Could it on the precipice of one?

Who knows? But know this: Minnesota is 2-0 in Big Ten play for the first time since 2004 and just the third time since 1990. And there?s a good chance the Gophers could push that to 4-0 with games coming up vs. Purdue and at Illinois to close October. Then, the lifting gets heavy in November. In fact, no Big Ten school may have a more difficult closing month: Iowa; Ohio State; at Nebraska; at Wisconsin.

But let?s not get ahead of ourselves. Let?s enjoy this sun-splashed October afternoon and bathe in what Kill and his astute staff are doing in the Twin Cities.

Kill walked into what was a dysfunctional program that lacked continuity. You name it, this Minnesota squad lacked it: talent, discipline, direction. It has been a slow, steady build under Kill, who went 3-9 in 2011; 6-7 in 2012; 8-5 last year. After today?s victory, Minnesota is 5-1 for the first time since the program jetted to a 7-1 start in 2008.

This is a team is the epitome of ?blue collar,? built around a physical running game led by David Cobb, one of the nation's most underrated players. Cobb has enjoyed an amazing ascent, going from third-stringer in the preseason in 2013 to a workhorse who is the face of this program. Cobb ran 30 times for 97 yards today. Was it sexy? Was it spectacular? Was it highlight-worthy? No, no, no. But, that?s Cobb. No frills. Just results in his typical ?just move the chains? style. He has carried 154 times for 819 yards this season, as Minnesota showed no letdown after its big Little Brown Jug win at Michigan.

?The biggest thing is to be level-headed, and to not get too high or too low,? Cobb said. ?We celebrated the win, which we should have. And we prepared well this week, and we will celebrate this one and prepare for next week.?

Also encouraging today for Kill: The continued development of quarterback Mitch Leidner, who hit 10-of-15 passes for 153 yards and an interception. The last time out in a win at Michigan, Leidner completed 14-of-22 passes for 167 yards with a touchdown. If he can continue to give the offense balance with his passing, Minnesota will be a challenge to defend.

But the real key to this team is the defense. The bellwethers are linebacker Damien Wilson and corner Eric Murray. The entire back seven is a strength, especially a secondary that also includes Derrick Wells, Cedric Thompson and Antonio Johnson. The line? It remains a work in progress. End Thieren Cockran is the star, but the talent is thin. How thin? True freshman Steven Richardson starts at a tackle slot. Regardless, it?s all working.

The Gophers came out and did what the Gophers do best: be methodical. Their first touchdown drive took 11 plays and covered 63 yards and took 6:33. The next one was six plays for 75 yards and took 2:51. And a field-goal drive took 11 plays and 4:59. But it was a quick score that put this one out of reach, as Jalen Myrick raced 100 yards with a touchdown to break a 17-17 tie in the fourth quarter with 7:19 left. It?s the kind of big play this team struggles to deliver on a consistent basis.

?We felt that we had a good shot, but they kicked it out of the end zone so we never got one for a while,? said Kill. ?But Jalen caught that ball and that?s when people found out how fast that kid is.?

Northwestern still can be a factor in the West, especially if its defense keeps playing well. The key for NU will be the continued development of the offense. The Wildcats ran 84 plays to Minnesota?s 54 today, but it still lost. Running back Justin Jackson continues to develop, running for over 100 yards (106) for the second week in a row. Quarterback Trevor Siemian hit 32-of-50 passes for 269 yards with a touchdown and an interception. More big plays are needed. The longest pass was 21 yards. The longest run was 12 yards.

?The division is really competitive,? Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. ?We knew that going in. Our guys were ready to play, for the most part. I thought we handled things-but we didn?t dominate or make the big plays.?

Minnesota did. And that?s why it can keep dreaming big.

About Tom Dienhart senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men's basketball for and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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