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College football: Jerry Kill’s presence helps inspire Gophers

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It is obvious Gophers coach Jerry Kill has a positive impact on his team even if he isn’t on the sidelines.

Kill, who is on an indefinite medical leave from his head coaching duties to deal with his epilepsy, made a surprise visit to Minnesota’s game at Northwestern last week. Kill and his wife, Rebecca, drove from Minneapolis last Saturday morning. He watched the game from a booth and addressed the team at halftime with the score tied 7-7. The Gophers went on to pull off a 20-17 upset. Kill also talked with the team following the game.

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Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, who is serving as acting head coach, thinks Kill’s mere presence has an impact on the players.

“He’s kind of like Linus’ blanket,” Claeys said in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “To have him around just makes everybody feel comfortable because he means a hell of a lot to all of us. That’s what I told them at halftime: ‘If Coach can make the effort to get here and drive, then we can dig a little bit deeper and play just a little bit harder. It’ll be special to be able to finish it off.’ I’m so proud of them.”

Kill is expected to attend Saturday’s home game against Nebraska, another contest in which the Gophers will be heavy underdogs. The win over Northwestern gives Minnesota a 1-2 record in the Big Ten. The Gophers are 5-2 overall and one win from being bowl eligible for the second straight season.

Minnesota will need another team effort to beat Nebraska. The Gophers got a break last week when Northwestern played without quarterback Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark, the Wildcats’ two best offensive players. The injury front may look different this week if Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez returns from a turf toe injury that has sidelined him since Sept. 14. The Cornhuskers, who are coming off a bye week, are 5-1 overall and 2-0 in the conference.

Philip Nelson, who came off the bench to replace Mitch Leidner against Northwestern, could start at quarterback. Leidner was on medication for an illness during the week. Although Nelson led the Gophers to last week’s win, it appears the coaching staff would like to play both quarterbacks the remainder of the season.

“We’re going to need them both the way we run the ball with our quarterbacks,” Claeys said in the Pioneer Press.

While both quarterbacks have played well at times, no one had taken a firm hold of the job. Nelson, a redshirt sophomore, began the season as the starter. Leidner is a redshirt freshman.

“The one thing I can tell you we’re not going to do, we’re not going to get into alternating series,” Claeys said in the Pioneer Press. “I just don’t believe in that. I think you play the guy who gives you the best opportunity to win.”

Notes, quotes

PLAYERS TO WATCH

n RB David Cobb, who has moved up to No. 1 on the depth chart, played a big role in the win over Northwestern. He gained 103 yards on 20 carries with a long run of 24 yards. The junior averaged 5.2 yards a carry and didn’t fumble. Cobb also caught a pass that went for a 21-yard gain.

n DB Antonio Johnson received extra playing time with the Gophers’ secondary banged up against Northwestern and took advantage of the opportunity. He led the team with 11 tackles, including seven solo stops.

n LB James Manuel had one of the game’s biggest plays against Northwestern when he returned an interception 24 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter to break a 7-7 tie. That score put Minnesota ahead for good. Manuel also had five tackles, including a sack for nine yards.

n DT Ra’Shede Hageman recorded his first career interception in the second quarter against Northwestern, but was tripped up on his way to the end zone. Facing double teams for most of the game, Hageman had only one tackle, but broke up three passes and was credited with a quarterback hit.

SERIES HISTORY: Minnesota is 22-29-2 against Nebraska and has lost 16 straight in the series. The Gophers haven’t beaten the Cornhuskers since a 26-14 win in 1960.

QUOTE TO NOTE: “I definitely see the light at the end of the tunnel, but you can’t wait for it to happen. You have to go out there and make plays and prepare yourself for each game. The Big Ten is very competitive, so you have to have your game right.” — Defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman, in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, after Minnesota’s win over Northwestern.

Strategy and personnel

GAME BREAKDOWN

Scouting the running game: Minnesota picked up 176 yards on the ground against Northwestern. David Cobb has moved past Rodrick Williams on the depth chart and gained 103 yards on 20 carries. The two had been splitting time in the backfield since Donnell Kirkwood sprained an ankle in the season opener, but the coaching staff believes Williams has some growing up to do and he didn’t get a carry last week. Kirkwood had 10 carries for 26 yards, the most action he’s seen since being injured. Quarterbacks Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner are both threats to run with the ball.

Scouting the passing game: The quarterback shuffle continued last week, but it resulted in a win against Northwestern. Mitch Leidner started, but the switch to Philip Nelson helped swing the game in Minnesota’s favor. Minnesota punted in all five series with Leidner on the field, but punted only twice in the eight series with Nelson running the show. Nelson was 8 of 11 for 112 yards and a touchdown. The Gophers attempted only 14 passes, completing nine, with Derrick Engel, Drew Wolitarsky and Mike Henry catching two apiece. Tight end Maxx Williams, who had become a favorite target of Leidner’s, didn’t catch a pass.

Scouting the run defense: Minnesota held Northwestern to 94 net yards rushing in its best performance of the season. The Gophers went into the game allowing an average of 128.3 yards on the ground. The run defense hit a low point against Iowa allowing 246 yards, including 147 by Mark Weisman. The front seven is doing a better job at the line of scrimmage, which must continue down the stretch. The Gophers will get a major test against Nebraska’s running game.

Scouting the pass defense: The secondary has been hit with injuries, but held up well in the win over Northwestern. Safety Brock Vereen moved to cornerback in place of Derrick Wells, who has a shoulder injury. Vereen recorded four tackles while Antonio Johnson led the team with 11. It helped that Minnesota had three sacks after having only seven going into the game. The pressure resulted in two interceptions, one of which was returned 24 yards for a touchdown by linebacker James Manuel.

Scouting the special teams: Peter Mortell continued to punt well against Northwestern. He averaged 44.7 yards on seven kicks, including a long of 57 yards. Mortell also had two punts inside the 20-yard line. Chris Hawthorne missed a 44-yard field as time expired in the first half, but connected on kicks of 34 and 38 yards. Marcus Jones, who had a kickoff and punt return for scores in the first two games of the season, has been bothered by an ankle injury. Receiver Derrick Engel returned punts and defensive back Antonio Johnson ran back kickoffs last week.

Roster report

n WR Derrick Engel, who was monitored for concussion symptoms after being injured against Michigan, caught a 29-yard touchdown pass in the Northwestern game.

n CB Martez Shabazz is sidelined with a separated shoulder. He was injured against Michigan.

n CB Derrick Wells saw limited action against Northwestern because of a shoulder injury. He’s been bothered by the injury most of the season and hurt it again in the Michigan game.

n S Cedric Thompson, who was monitored for concussion symptoms after being injured against Michigan, recorded two tackles in limited action versus Northwestern.

n OT Ed Olson played for the first time since the season opener against Northwestern. He was sidelined with an ankle injury.

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.

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