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College Football: November suddenly a meaningful month for Gophers

The phrases milestone and Minnesota football haven’t exactly gone hand-in-hand the last several years.

Thanks to an unexpected three-game winning streak, times are changing.

The Gophers head into Saturday’s home game against Penn State with a 7-2 overall record and a 3-2 mark in the Big Ten. Minnesota’s winning streak includes victories over Northwestern, Nebraska and Indiana. After losing their first two conference games, the Gophers have suddenly put themselves in a position to play meaningful games in November.

A victory would give Minnesota its first eight-win season since going 10-3 in 2003 when Glen Mason coached the Gophers. It would also be their first time with four Big Ten victories since they were 4-4 under Mason in 2005. A win would give them four straight conference victories for the first time since 1973 under Cal Stoll.

The Gophers have battled through tough times all season. Coach Jerry Kill has been on medical leave for the last month for treatment of his epilepsy. Instead of folding, the Gophers have mirrored their coach’s tough-minded approach to win their last three games when they were decided underdogs.

The streak began with a win at Northwestern, a game the Gophers controlled throughout. Minnesota followed with a stunning victory at home over Nebraska, the first win over the Cornhuskers since 1960.

Their latest win was the most difficult. Minnesota dominated Indiana to take a 22-point lead before seeing all of it get away as the Hoosiers went ahead 39-35 in the fourth quarter. The Gophers took the lead when quarterback Philip Nelson hit tight end Maxx Williams with a 50-yard touchdown pass with 3:06 remaining, but the drama was far from over as Indiana drove to Minnesota’s 9-yard line.

A game-tying field goal looked like a sure thing and it seemed likely the Hoosiers would score a winning touchdown until linebacker Aaron Hill pounced on a backwards pass from quarterback Nate Sudfeld to secure the 42-39 victory.

Kill was in the coaches’ booth as he had been in the previous two games while defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys assumed the head coaching duties on the sidelines.

The Gophers are third in the Legends Division and trail first-place Michigan State by two games. Minnesota is off next week before finishing with games against Wisconsin and the Spartans. A strong finish would give the Gophers a chance to play in a New Year’s Day bowl game for the first time since the 1962 Rose Bowl. Minnesota hasn’t cracked the Top 25 in the polls but has received votes. The Gophers’ last national ranking was at No. 20 in both the Associated Press poll and the USA Today coaches’ poll on Oct. 26, 2008.

“We’re playing for something in November, and we’re playing at home, which is even better,” Kill said in the Star Tribune of Saturday’s game.

Senior receiver Derrick Engel knows he and his teammates can’t get caught up in the hype about the winning streak.

“It’s a really good feeling, but we’re not satisfied with it either,” he said in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “We set high goals this year. We’re still trying to accomplish those. It’s just another step in the road.”