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Minnesota quarterback Philip Nelson (9) gives the play to the team in the third quarter against Penn State Nov. 9 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. USA TODAY Sports

College Football: Gophers can still reach Big Ten title game

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MINNEAPOLIS — The very idea seemed far-fetched when the season began, or even a few weeks ago for that matter, but it’s November and the Gophers are playing meaningful games.

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In fact, Saturday’s home game against Wisconsin is Minnesota’s biggest in the last decade. The Gophers are 8-2 overall and 4-2 in the Big Ten’s Legends Division, have won four straight and are even making noise in the national polls. Minnesota is No. 23 in the coaches’ poll and has moved into 25th place in the BCS standings. The Gophers hadn’t been in the BCS rankings since they were No. 24 in the opening week of the standings in 2008.

The Gophers have won four straight conference games for the first time since 1973 and are in contention for a January bowl game. While it’s a longshot, Minnesota has a chance to play in the Big Ten title game in Indianapolis on Dec. 7. The Gophers would have to win Saturday and hope Michigan State, which has clinched a tie for the division championship, loses to Northwestern. Minnesota would then have to win at Michigan State next week to advance to the title game.

While the chances of all those possibilities going the Gophers’ way are slim, the fact they’re still mathematically alive for a division title with two games remaining shows how much progress the program has made in coach Jerry Kill’s third season on the job. The Gator Bowl, Capital One Bowl and Outback Bowl — all played on Jan. 1 — have expressed interest in the Gophers.

Minnesota is coming off its second bye of the season. The Gophers have defeated Northwestern, Nebraska, Indiana and Penn State in the winning streak after losing to Iowa and Michigan to begin the conference season.

The season hit a low point after the Iowa game. Kill didn’t make the trip to Michigan because he wasn’t feeling well and suffered his second seizure of the season the day of the game. He began an indefinite medical leave of absence for treatment of his epilepsy on Oct. 10 and there were doubts if the Gophers could survive without their leader.

Kill, who gradually has returned to work, has been in the coaches’ booth the last four games but it’s unclear if he will be back on the sidelines this season. He knows playing Wisconsin, which is also 8-2 and has won five straight, is the biggest test of the season.

“I think they’re a very, very good football team, and I think they’re the most underrated defensive team in the country,” Kill said. “I don’t think many people — the way they run the ball and the way they’re playing defense — would want to play them right now.”

While the Gophers’ success has created a lot of excitement, the team got some bad news while getting ready to play Wisconsin. Wide receiver Derrick Engel, who leads the team in receptions, suffered a knee injury in practice and might not play against the Badgers. The momentum Minnesota has built the last four weeks will take a hit if Engel is out. The senior leads the Gophers in receptions (25), yards (405) and touchdowns (five). Engel, who has also been battling an ankle injury, had three catches for 40 yards against Penn State.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

RB David Cobb didn’t figure prominently in the team’s plans going into the season, but the junior grabbed the job last month and doesn’t look like he’s about to give it back. Cobb is 48 yards away from being Gophers’ first 1,000-yard rusher since 2006. He’s averaging 143 yards rushing during the four-game winning streak. Cobb picked up 139 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries while catching three passes against Penn State two weeks ago.

QB Philip Nelson has left little doubt that he has firm control of the job. The redshirt sophomore has been flawless in Minnesota’s four-game winning streak. Nelson has thrown for seven touchdowns with no interceptions in wins over Northwestern, Nebraska, Indiana and Penn State. He has completed 63 percent of his passes for 748 yards in those victories.

DL Theiren Cockran is 10th on the team with 27 tackles, but that doesn’t begin to show the impact he’s had on Minnesota’s defense. The redshirt sophomore has been all over the field. He has nine tackles for a loss of yardage, including 6.5 sacks for a total of 30 yards. Cockran has also forced three fumbles and recovered a fumble.

LB Damien Wilson, a junior college transfer, made an immediate impact on the defense and hasn’t stopped. He leads the team with 57 tackles and has an obvious nose for the ball. The junior has 5.5 tackles for a loss of 21 yards.

SERIES HISTORY

Minnesota is 58-56-8 against Wisconsin, but has lost nine straight to the Badgers in the battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe. The Gophers have lost 16 of 18 in the series. Minnesota’s last win over Wisconsin was a 37-34 home victory in 2003.

QUOTE TO NOTE

“This is one that not only me and our team but all the fans and the people of this campus want. This is the one everybody wants a lot.” — Quarterback Philip Nelson, in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, on the Gophers’ game against Wisconsin.

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