2014 Recap: An 8-5 record doesn’t traditionally warrant the phrase “great season.” But for Jerry Kill, the Big Ten’s Coach of the Year last season, it wasn’t so much about the record as much as how his team performed in 2014.
Including the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl, Minnesota dropped three of its final four games of the season after a 6-1 start to the year. It wasn’t exactly optimal for the Gophers to drop so many games in their most important stretch of the year, but all four games came against ranked opponents. Minnesota put up valiant fights in losses to Ohio State and Wisconsin but fell short of the upset bid in each of those games. Against Missouri in the Citrus Bowl, a 14-point final quarter catapulted the Tigers to a victory.
In that stretch, though, Kill did earn a significant come-from-behind win, beating Nebraska 28-24. The Huskers had a 21-7 lead in the third quarter but a strong rushing performance from quarterback Mitch Leidner led the Gophers to the win, perhaps their most significant under Kill.
The 2014 campaign was a major step forward for a program that was accustomed to performing on the ground floor of the conference before Kill’s arrival. A 1,636 yard season for senior running back David Cobb and a defense that ranked 34th in the country were the staples behind a successful Gophers season and the key reasons why Minnesota had a shot at competing for a Big Ten championship.
High Point: Without question, on the field, the most exciting moment for the Golden Gophers and their fans was the comeback victory against the Huskers in Lincoln. But overall, Kill taking home conference Coach of the Year honors trumps any one moment for Minnesota on the field.
Until the end of the year, the Gophers were in the race for the Big Ten West division title and had a legitimate shot to get to Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship game. No, 8-5 may not be necessarily noteworthy, but the growth of a program is worth recognition. To have a team competing for a conference title when it was winning just three games a few years ago is a remarkable accomplishment.
It was special to see Kill honored for his development of the program.
Low Point: A 28-24 loss at the hands of Illinois was the deepest valley for the Gophers last season. All around, Minnesota didn’t play its best football, with three turnovers while running for only 171 yards against the conference’s worst run defense. For a player of David Cobb’s ability, he should’ve easily eclipsed the 200 yard mark in a Gophers win.
The loss meant Minnesota would finish the conference season with a 5-3 mark rather than 6-2. Credit goes to Illinois for being prepared for this one, but the Gophers weren’t ready to play on that late-October Saturday.
Best Player: There’s little doubt that Cobb was the heart and soul of Minnesota in 2014. He rushed for more than 1,600 yards and 13 touchdowns and was the workhorse in Kill’s heavy ground attack. Multiple times through the year, Cobb’s workload eclipsed 30 carries per game and the senior continued to deliver.
In Minnesota’s toughest contest of the year, its star shined brightest. He finished the day with 145 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-24 loss to Ohio State with his highest touchdown output of the season coming in the game. Cobb had multiple games eclipsing the 200 yard mark, but to put up the numbers he did against the Buckeyes’ aggressive front line in a game with huge implications was nothing short of impressive.
2015 Outlook: Minnesota loses a lot of talent offensively with Cobb graduating and Maxx Williams headed for the NFL, meaning quarterback Mitch Leidner will have to improve heading into next season. Leidner completed just 51 percent of his passes in 2014, with a majority of his completions credited to Williams. Outside of his tight end, no receiver eclipsed the 300-yard mark and Donovahn Jones was the only other player to catch more than one touchdown pass.
Defensively, the Gophers should still be strong. They won’t be atop the Big Ten in points allowed, but they won’t be at the bottom either. Minnesota returns leading interception-grabber Briean Boddy-Calhoun along with big defensive linemen Theiren Cockran and Sam Richardson, which should be a solid foundation.
Regardless how good the defense becomes, Minnesota will have to find a way to keep the offense on the field in 2015, which will be easier said than done. Kill will have to show more trust in Leidner to throw the football and create a more balanced offensive attack without Cobb.
It’s going to be interesting to see how the Big Ten’s Coach of the Year approaches the offseason and how prepared the Gophers will be for 2015.