It was supposed to a breakout year for Minnesota (granted, Big Ten observers seem to be saying that every year). This was the year Glen Mason would silence his critics--the ones who said he couldn't take the team to the next level. After this afternoon, it appears Mason's critics have more fuel for their fire, as a once-promising Gopher season is in danger of slipping away.
Minnesota fell at home to Ohio State 45-31. The loss itself was hardly noteworthy, but the context is discouraging for Gopher fans. Two weeks ago, Minnesota had gone into Ann Arbor and came out with a 23-20 win. As home games with Wisconsin and the Buckeyes beckoned, Mason's team had a real shot at being 4-1 and in good position for the conference title. And they all but had Wisconsin beat, until the Badgers blocked a punt and stole a 38-34 win last week. Today, the Minnesota defense made its usual non-performance, as Antonio Pittman thundered for 186 yards and Troy Smith needed just ten completions to throw for almost 250 yards. One wonders where the tackling in the secondary is at.
In the three conference losses, Minnesota has given up an average of forty-two points per game. And they surrendered 35 to Purdue in a victory. The legal phrase "the defense rests", rings all too true in the Gopher State.
Minnesota's title hopes are gone again, but they still have a chance at redemption. At 5-3 overall, the next two games are at Indiana and a home date with Michigan State. If they can win these two (and the latter is no gimme), they travel to Iowa. If they can pull off an upset there, a bid to the Outback Bowl on New Year's Day remains possible. But it is not likely.
Mason deserves better then he is getting from his critics. He's a good coach who took a moribund program and turned it into a consistent bowl team. The naysayers in Minnesota need only look to Indiana, and their firing of Bill Mallory in 1996 to find out what can happen when a program greedily terminates a coach seeking the "next level." But sane Gopher fans still can't be blamed for a little discouragement as another chance at the limelight is passing by the boards.