Gophers to add to bowl resumé

Published 4:22 am Friday, November 1, 2013

INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana’s second-half success comes down to two simple rules.

Convert third downs on offense and the Hoosiers score. Stop opponents on third down and they won’t score.

So the Hoosiers are scrambling to shore up both areas as they enter their next quest: To become bowl eligible for the first time since 2007. The path to the postseason begins Saturday when Minnesota comes to town.

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“Can our defense get stops and keep our offense going?” coach Kevin Wilson asked this week. “We’re playing two styles and it’s a neat little contrast. They execute their stuff, they’ll be tough to handle; we execute our stuff, we will be tough to handle.”

Perhaps no other team in the Football Bowl Subdivision has such a Jekyll-and-Hyde image.

Indiana (3-4, 1-2 Big Ten) is on pace to break the school’s single-season scoring record at 42.2 points per game.

But the Hoosiers also are allowing 37.1 points and 221 yards rushing per game, both league highs and numbers that don’t bode well against Minnesota’s improved ground game.

Indiana, which has lost two straight, needs three wins in its last five games to reach the magical six-win total that could get them into a bowl game. The problem is that three of the Hoosiers’ final five foes — Minnesota (6-2, 2-2), No. 22 Wisconsin (5-2, 3-1) and No. 4 Ohio State (8-0, 4-0) — are ranked among the league’s top four running teams and they still have to play at Madison, Wis., and Columbus, Ohio.

Not surprisingly, Wilson is taking a simple, disciplined approach to find a solution.

“We talked about (third-down) conversions, how to keep the ball, creating turnovers, fundamentals of tackling,” Wilson said of Indiana’s bye week work. “These are short things that we want to concentrate on to see if we can be stronger down the stretch. We’re going to be in close games, we have a chance to be in exciting games if we play well and how to find a way to make that play or two to get over the hump.”

Minnesota is already bowl-eligible as it heads to Bloomington for the first time since 2007.

Here are five things to watch Saturday:

COACH’S CORNER: Minnesota coach Jerry Kill plans to be in the press box, but it’s unclear how much input he’ll actually have in making calls as he attempts to better manage and seek treatment for epilepsy. Meanwhile, interim coach Tracy Claeys has back-to-back wins, so there’s no rush to make a change. Could the Gophers make it three in a row? Of course. Indiana fans still remember how the Colts responded last year when coach Chuck Pagano took an indefinite leave and Bruce Arians led them to a 9-3 record.

HOME, SWEET, HOME: The Hoosiers didn’t leave town for the first five weeks of the season. Now, they haven’t been back for a month. They’re hoping a return to Memorial Stadium turns their season around after their first back-to-back losses of this year. Saturday is the first of three November home games — Minnesota, Illinois and Purdue — and the Hoosiers probably need to sweep those games to become bowl eligible. These two teams last met since 2008.

GROUNDED GOPHERS: Minnesota is a bigger factor in the conference race this season because it has been far more productive on the ground. How much better are the Gophers? Minnesota has already rushed for 19 TDs, five more than last season, and still has four games left. The Gophers are 10-4 when rushing for two TDs in a game during Kill’s tenure — not a good omen for an Indiana defense that has allowed a league-high 19 rushing TDs (2.7 per game) this season.

AIR MAIL: If Indiana can exploit one major weakness against Minnesota, it could be through the air. Indiana averages 342.7 yards passing per game, more than 65 yards per game more than the No. 2 team in the Big Ten. Minnesota’s defense is ranked among the bottom third of the league in defensive passer efficiency rating (130.9). If the Gophers aren’t better than that Saturday, it could be a long afternoon in Bloomington.

SEVENTH HEAVEN: Now that Minnesota is bowl eligible for the second straight season, the Gophers intend to see just how much they accomplish. A win Saturday would give Minnesota its first seven-win season since 2008 and only its second since Glen Mason was fired after the 2006 season.