College football: Even Kill surprised by Gophers’ quick turnaround
The Gophers’ four-game winning streak has surprised people in the Big Ten and around the country.
Count Minnesota coach Jerry Kill in that group. Kill took over a floundering program following the 2010 season in which the Gophers finished 3-9 and coach Tim Brewster was fired. Minnesota went 3-9 again in 2011 in Kill’s first season, but improved to 6-7 and qualified for a bowl game in 2012.
This season began with four wins, but Minnesota lost its first two Big Ten games and Kill took an indefinite medical leave to treat his epilepsy after suffering seizures on two different occasions. It appeared the season was ready to spiral out of control, but the Gophers, who don’t play again until Nov. 23 against Wisconsin, have become one of the feel-good stories in college football.
Minnesota’s 24-10 win over Penn State was its fourth straight victory, which gave the Gophers a 4-2 record in the Legends Division and 8-2 overall. The latest victory also gave Minnesota its first four-game Big Ten winning streak in 40 years. Minnesota is also ranked 25th in the coaches’ poll, its first national ranking since 2008.
Kill, who turned around programs in previous stops at Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois, didn’t think the same thing would happen in Minneapolis this quickly.
“We haven’t had three recruiting classes yet,” he told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “Everywhere else we had three recruiting classes. So that’s the unique thing about it.”
Several players left the program while Kill was running a demanding offseason program in the winter of 2011 after he took the job. A total of 20 players who were recruited by Brewster, including seven starters, are still with the Gophers.
“I think you’ve got to give credit to those kids and the combination of bringing kids in,” Kill said in the Pioneer Press. “It’s become one heartbeat. Sometimes when you’re in that transition, it takes awhile.”
The winning streak began with a victory at Northwestern. The Gophers then stunned Nebraska at TCF Bank Stadium before winning on the road again against Indiana. Minnesota hosts Wisconsin next week before finishing the regular season at Michigan State. Kill hasn’t coached from the sidelines since the Big Ten opener against Iowa. He didn’t attend the Michigan game and began his leave on Oct. 10. Kill has been in the coaches’ booth the last four games and it’s uncertain if he will return to the sidelines this season.
Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys has been the acting head coach during games in Kill’s absence.
“We never threw in the towel, even after we lost our first two Big Ten games,” Claeys said in the Pioneer Press. “We were disappointed at the time, but we could see ourselves getting better. I believe people who work hard eventually get rewarded, especially if they keep fighting.”
BYE WEEK MISSION: Given their four-game winning streak, the Gophers would prefer to keep playing. The team needs to keep the momentum going. The week off can help some of the injured players heal up. The Gophers will need to be at full strength with difficult games against Wisconsin and Michigan State to finish the season.
n RB David Cobb is 48 yards shy of becoming the Gophers’ first 1,000-yard rusher since 2006. The junior moved into the No. 1 running back last month and has taken off with it. Cobb is averaging 143 yards rushing during Minnesota’s four-game winning streak. He ran for 139 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries in the win over Penn State. Cobb also caught three passes.
n QB Philip Nelson has taken control of the offense. The redshirt sophomore has made big throws and played mistake-free football in the winning streak. Nelson has completed 63 percent of his passes for 748 yards and seven touchdowns the last four games. He hasn’t thrown an interception, which perhaps is the most important number. Nelson completed 15 of 24 passes for 186 yards and a touchdown against Penn State. He played the entire game despite having a hip pointer and has clearly moved past freshman Mitch Leidner in the quarterback derby.
n CB Eric Murray moved into the starting lineup when injuries hit the secondary and the sophomore has responded. He recorded a team-high nine tackles against Penn State, had one tackle for a loss and recovered a fumble. Murray, who primarily played on special teams last season, has 16 tackles in the last three weeks and is sixth on the team with 38 tackles.
n P Peter Mortell was named Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week for the second straight week after his performance against Penn State. He averaged 46 yards on four punts, including a career-long 62 yarder. Mortell helped the Gophers control field position and kept Penn State deep in its own territory, with one punt downed at the one-yard line and another at the two-yard line. He’s the first Gopher to ever repeat as a Big Ten Player of the Week.
QUOTE TO NOTE: “We’re having fun now. Before it was more of a job, coming to work and you didn’t know if you were going to win or not. But now we expect to win.” — Running back David Cobb, in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, on Minnesota’s four-game winning streak.
Strategy and personnel
Scouting the offense: The Gophers have suddenly become a well-balanced offensive team. David Cobb is running like an all-conference player at tailback. He’s shown the ability to hit holes quickly and is powerful enough to break tackles once he gets in open spaces. Philip Nelson has taken control of the quarterback job. Seven players caught passes against Penn State, giving Nelson many options when he puts the ball in the air. Derrick Engel and Maxx Williams are his primary targets, but Drew Wolitarsky, Isaac Fruechte and Donovahn Jones have also become part of the passing game. The offensive line deserves credit and the play-calling has given the Gophers a diverse attack. Minnesota converted three of their fourth-down attempts against Penn State, with two resulting in touchdowns.
Scouting the defense: Minnesota blanked Penn State in the second half in its 24-10 win. Although Zach Zwinak rushed for a season-high 150 yards, the Gophers held tight when it mattered. Penn State drove to Minnesota’s 12-yard line midway through the fourth quarter before the Gophers forced quarterback Christian Hackenberg into four straight incompletions. The Nittany Lions drove to the two-yard line on their next drive before Hackenberg fumbled and James Manuel recovered. Minnesota held Penn State to 1 of 9 on third down conversions and the Nittany Lions had the ball for only 24:32. The secondary has continued to play well despite a series of injuries to several key players.
Scouting the special teams: Field position played a major role in the win over Penn State. Punter Peter Mortell kept the Nittany Lions deep in their own territory all afternoon. Three of his four punts were inside the 20-yard line. Chris Hawthorne hit a 45-yard field goal for Minnesota’s first score. Marcus Jones returned two kickoffs for 38 yards while Antonio Johnson ran back one kickoff for 29 yards. Jones has been bothered by an ankle injury since returning a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns in the first two weeks of the season.
n WR Derrick Engel injured his ankle in the win over Indiana, but caught three passes for 40 yards against Penn State.
n C Jon Christenson will miss the rest of the season because of a broken left leg. He was injured in the Indiana game and was carted off the field.
n RB Rodrick Williams has missed the last four games. He didn’t play against Northwestern for disciplinary reasons and missed the last two games because of a foot injury.
n WR James Harbison hasn’t played the last two weeks. Coach Jerry Kill has given no reason for the redshirt freshman’s absence.
n CB Derrick Wells has seen limited action the last four games because of a shoulder injury. He broke up a pass against Penn State. Wells has been bothered by the injury most of the season.
n RB Berkley Edwards has yet to play this season after injuring his knee in fall practice. He could get a redshirt year.
n CB Briean Boddy-Calhoun will miss the rest of the season because of a torn ACL in his left knee. He’ll get a medical redshirt season and return as a junior next year.