Minnesota is looking to go from a mere rebuilding success story to a legitimate championship contender. Efforts like the one it got out of its defense Thursday night could make that leap a reality. Efforts like the one it got from its offense Thursday night could make that leap impossible.
The Gophers played tremendous, championship-caliber defense against the No. 2 team in the country, but the offense struggled to do much of anything in a 23-17 loss to TCU in the Twin Cities.
This was an impressive showing from a Minnesota team that was blown out by TCU when the two met last season in Fort Worth, a 30-7 win for the Horned Frogs. The Gophers limited preseason Heisman favorite Trevone Boykin as best they could and held the Frogs to 23 points, their lowest scoring output since November 2013. Minnesota repeatedly bent but did not break, twice doing that via the turnover, as Eric Murray both forced a fumble and intercepted a pass, stopping TCU drives in their tracks. The Gophers also forced a total of four field goal tries, with one clanging off the upright.
The Horned Frogs amassed 449 yards of offense Thursday after averaging better than 533 a game last season.
[MORE BIG TEN: Rudock throws three picks, Michigan loses Harbaugh's debut]
The Minnesota defense not only played well, it played well enough for the Gophers to spring an upset on the second-ranked Frogs. But even with that admirable effort against a team that scored 30 points or more in each and every game it played last season, Minnesota’s defense could not spark any type of production on the offensive side of the ball.
The Gophers gained just 341 yards on the night, 91 of them coming on a fourth-quarter touchdown drive that sliced the deficit to six with about a minute and a half to play. But after a failed onside kick attempt, that long drive proved too little too late.
The rushing total was of the greatest concern. With David Cobb departed for the NFL, the Gophers picked up just 144 yards on the ground Thursday. Rodney Smith proved the bright spot, going for 88 yards and a touchdown, but Rodrick Williams had just 32 yards on nine carries and coughed up a critical fumble on the goal line in the second quarter, wiping out the chance at a touchdown right when the offense had finally gained some momentum.
That was one of two costly fumbles in the first half for the Gophers. Quarterback Mitch Leidner was sacked and stripped of the ball, leading to a TCU touchdown when the Frogs recovered the ball at the Minnesota 15-yard line.
[MORE BIG TEN: Michael Rose-Ivey among five Huskers suspended for opener]
Leidner was mostly unimpressive Thursday night. He went 19-for-35 with 197 yards and a touchdown. Five of those completions, 67 of those yards and the lone touchdown toss came on that late-fourth quarter drive. The good news was Leidner’s increased accuracy. He completed better than 54 percent of his passes against TCU after completing just 51.5 percent of his throws last season, the worst mark in the Big Ten.
But without Cobb and tight end Maxx Williams, also now playing in the NFL, the Minnesota offense struggled to do much and struggled to prove that they can compete in a game where the offense needs to be relied on.
TCU is one of the country’s best teams, and the Gophers should be proud of their Thursday-night performance. The defense turned in a championship-caliber effort. But if the offense continues to sputter, competing for a championship won't be in the cards this season.