MINNEAPOLIS -- After the euphoria of a season-ending victory over rival Wisconsin subsides, those in charge of and a part of the Minnesota football program will have to figure out how to stop a troubling trend.
After the Glen Mason-led Golden Gophers became considerably better in his third year on the job, they've gotten worse in the last two. In 16 seasons as a head coach at Minnesota, Kansas and Kent State, Mason's never had three teams in a row finish over .500.
"How the season turns out, you put that on your seniors," said Derek Burns, the anchor of the offensive line who made a flawless move from guard to center this year. "So we're a little disappointed there. But overall in the five years I've been here, there have been some great games and some great things have happened."
Minnesota went 8-3 in the regular season in 1999 and jumped to a 5-2 start last year, capped by a road victory against Mason's alma mater, Ohio State. Rose Bowl was the buzz word among some of the locals.
But it took a comeback victory over Iowa to qualify for the Micronpc.com Bowl -- a game in which the Gophers wasted a 24-0 lead and lost to North Carolina State.
This season, Minnesota limped to a tie for last place in the Big Ten and a 4-7 record.
Still, Mason insisted after Saturday's win over the Badgers that things weren't as bad as they might have seemed in 2001.
"We haven't been playing lousy football," Mason said. "We just haven't been winning. That goes along with having a young team mature and gel together. I give my guys all the credit in the world. They hung in there the whole season no matter what everybody else says, and they battled until it was over."
The win over Wisconsin was an impressive one, despite the Badgers' similar status as a non-qualifier for postseason play. Quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq punctuated an impressive finish with 265 yards passing and three touchdowns, plus another one on the ground.
Abdul-Khaliq, woefully inconsistent last year and the first half of the season while part of a rotation with Travis Cole, saved his best for last. After a dreadful 4-for-18 performance against Northwestern that netted just 36 yards passing, the sophomore totaled 11 touchdowns and three interceptions in his last six games and threw for 584 yards in his last two.
He should be primed for a more-consistent effort in 2002.
"My confidence level is at an all-time high," Abdul-Khaliq said. "I feel I can play against anybody. I know I don't have to worry about sacks or about receivers dropping the ball. I'll be under more pressure just knowing that I have to play like a junior. No more freshman mistakes. No more babies out there. We make a lot of big plays. With all of the returning players we have and all of the experience we have, next year should be a really good season."
If the Gophers can find capable replacements for Burns, guard Akeem Akinwale and tackle Matt Anderle on the offensive line, the ground game should be among the best in the conference next season.
Running backs Tellis Redmon -- who reached 1,000 yards rushing for the second straight season, Marion Barber III and Thomas Tapeh will all return next year.
Mason used Redmon at wide receiver occasionally during 2001, allowing all three to be on the field at once.
"I think that's probably a little peak into the future at some of the things that we're going to do," Mason said. "Because they've got to be on the field at the same time in some capacity, or have the ability to do that."
Ron Johnson is also leaving, with nearly all the school's receiving records in tow. But Antoine Burns, Tony Patterson and Jermaine Mays should form a serviceable crew for Abdul-Khaliq to throw to.
The real issue next season will be on the other side of the ball. With nine new starters and an entirely new coaching staff, Minnesota's defense showed its inexperience. The ninth-ranked unit in the conference played well in spurts but was overmatched in losses to Michigan, Iowa, Illinois, Northwestern, Ohio State and Toledo. Defensive end Greg White and free safety Jack Brewer will be the only departures.
The Gophers' best defensive effort came in a defeat to Purdue on Sept. 29, a game in which Minnesota led by 11 points late in the fourth quarter and eventually dropped -- albeit controversially -- in overtime. Had the outcome of that game been any different, the season might have taken a better turn.
"One of these times, I firmly believe things are going to go our way," Mason said. "We couldn't seem to get a break from the officials or anything like that. But these kids hung in there tough this year."
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