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This version of Minnesota has some muscle
Minnesota got 11 votes in this week's USA Today coaches poll. Yet, it didn't get any from the Associated Press.
The Golden Gophers (4-0) will have that to chew on as they travel to Iowa (2-2) this week. As far as motivation goes, a blank in the AP poll is a ripple. Minnesota will wear its motivation in a weightroom T-shirt this week that has a picture of the Floyd of Rosedale trophy and reads "Floyd of Rosedale -- Fighting for a Pig since 1935."
The Gophers also will wear it during their walk through Friday at Kinnick Stadium.
The fact that the Gophers are getting votes in either poll is progress. The fact that they will play to keep the bronze pig trophy with a third straight win over Iowa is major progress under second-year coach Jerry Kill.
Minnesota, which has won five straight since the end of last season, is 4-0 for the first time since 2008 and, with two more victories, could make the postseason for the first time since 2009.
The Gophers have three solid storylines going for them: 1) Defense, 2) resiliency at quarterback, and 3) running back Donnell Kirkwood.
With 11 sacks already this season, the Gophers trail only Nebraska (16) in the Big Ten. Ends D.L. Wilhite and Ra'Shede Hageman have combined for 7.5 sacks.
Pressure on the QB is fueling Minnesota's renaissance on defense. The Gophers are in the national top 30 in in points allowed (16.8 ppg), pass efficiency (93.2 rating), takeaways (10) and sacks (11).
"I've always said we're going to build this program on defense, and we're certainly getting better," Kill said after the Gophers pinned Syracuse 17-10 on Saturday night. "I'm sure we'll watch film, and we'll pick it apart, but when you play well you've got a chance.”
With four D-linemen putting pressure on the QB, everything else looks that much better, including the offense.
Minnesota's defensive effort has allowed it to withstand losing quarterback MarQueis Gray for the last two weeks after he suffered a high-ankle sprain Sept. 15 in a 28-23 victory over Western Michigan. Kill has said that Gray is doubtful for Saturday's game.
"I don't anticipate him playing next week. It would be a minor miracle if he was ready to play," Kill said. "I can't control the healing process, but right now, I'm not real optimistic (about) how quick that's going to come along."
The defense and a muscular running game have given new QB Max Shortell something to work with.
"Our defense has played amazing all season," said Shortell, who has three TDs and one interception since taking over for Gray. "Our defense did a tremendous job creating turnovers, giving us great field position."
With Gray (UM's leading rusher last season) out, Kirkwood has made his presence felt in the running game.
Kirkwood, a 5-10, 219-pound bowling ball, has been a revelation for the Gophers. He played as a true freshman, suffered a leg injury and was granted a medical hardship waiver. Last season, he had a modest 229 yards and three TDs on 63 carries.
Kirkwood's profile has skyrocketed through four games, with 81 carries for 360 yards, topping last season's numbers already. Against Syracuse, he gave Shortell something to lean on with a career-high 28 carries for 99 yards and two touchdowns.
“Whatever coach puts on my plate, I've got to keep eating it,” Kirkwood told the Minnesota Daily on Saturday night, moments after sneaking a bite of pizza in the postgame interview room. “I felt stronger as the game went on, and coach showed confidence in me. It just felt good.”
With Wilhite (6-3, 244 and 4.5 sacks), Hageman (6-6, 301 and three sacks) and Kirkwood (nickname is "Big Country"), this version of Minnesota has some meat to it.
"We have a mentality down there that we will not be stopped when we run goal line," Kirkwood said. "The offensive line knows it. The quarterback knows it. The receivers know it. When we run goal line, we have a mentality that we will get in. That is how we think, and that is how we are going to think for the rest of the year."