With Kill leading surge, Minnesota has momentum
Jerry Kill pushed his way through the jumping, swaying and shouting mass of players circled in the Minnesota locker room, finding space in the middle of the crowd so he could get down with some dance moves of his own.
The Gophers had plenty to celebrate after beating Penn State last Saturday, and their coach had just as much fun. One month ago, his ability to handle this demanding job was in question after a fifth day-of-game seizure in three seasons. The Gophers were blown out that afternoon at Michigan, and a glance then at their schedule suggested little hope for a turnaround.
Well, that's where they're headed now after winning their fourth straight Big Ten contest, a same-year first for this once-woebegone program since 1973. Minnesota (8-2, 4-2) has also reached its most wins since 2003. The Gophers have daunting matchups left against Wisconsin and at Michigan State, but they could find themselves playing on New Year's Day. That hasn't happened since they won the Rose Bowl in 1962.
"I didn't know if we could move quite this quick, but I think that's a credit to our staff and our players. On the inside — it's sometimes hard to see on the outside — we knew we were getting better," Kill said.
The Gophers are averaging 30.7 points and 218.5 yards rushing per game. They've converted 11 of 14 fourth downs, the best rate in the conference. Of the 32 times their offense has reached the opponent's 20-yard line or closer, they've scored on 31, including 24 touchdowns. The red zone defense has been stellar, too, allowing points on 28 of 37 opportunities for a Big Ten-leading percentage of 75.7, with four turnovers forced.
Sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson has made significant strides toward balancing the attack with precise, timely completions up and down the field. Senior Brock Vereen has helped stabilize an injury-affected secondary by switching from safety to cornerback. Kicker Chris Hawthorne (once) and punter Peter Mortell (twice) have monopolized the Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week award since the games played on Oct. 26.
The story of this surge transcends statistics, though. First, there's the age-old impact of increased confidence.
"We knew how good we were," tight end Maxx Williams said. "It just took that little time to get us to start clicking as a team together."
After taking a leave to better manage and treat his epilepsy, Kill had his wife drive him to the Oct. 19 game at Northwestern. He surprised the players with an impromptu halftime speech, and they responded with a 20-17 victory. Next was a first-since-1960 triumph over Nebraska, the singular, signature win for Kill and his staff here. The Gophers hung on to beat Indiana on the road 42-39 the following week, and then they delivered a decisive 24-10 victory over Penn State.
"The physical tools were always there," Vereen said. "Now that we've proven that we have a different mindset, this is a different team."
Kill has been at every practice since the Northwestern game, gradually reassuming his responsibilities since a brief stay at an epilepsy treatment center in Michigan. Though he's been in the coaches' booth in the press box, delegating sideline leadership to defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys without any immediate plan to change, Kill is again the chief decision-maker and heavily involved in preparation and strategy. His health problem has forced him to learn how to let go of some of the details that others can handle and better take care of his body amid the draining, pressurized nature of college football coaching.
"We're fortunate that we're winning under these conditions, but even if we weren't, I know we've made the right decision about how to let Jerry get back on his feet," University President Eric Kaler said. "And I'm glad he's making progress, and I'm very glad the team's making progress, and I'm glad there's this excitement in the community about Gophers football again."
Kaler added: "I had a lot of people in my ear saying, 'Well, we should fire him. He can't do his job, etc.' That's nonsense. We're going to be compassionate. We're going to be smart about how to let Jerry get back to full strength."
This is success is also a testament to loyalty and continuity.
Kill rarely misses an opportunity to tout his staff's togetherness, and that familiarity has certainly paid off during his absences. According to figures compiled by the school, the collective 124 years by his assistants working for him are by far the most in the country. Claeys has been with Kill for 19 seasons, from Saginaw Valley State to Emporia State to Southern Illinois to Northern Illinois to Minnesota.
Claeys was available to the media in Kill's absences, but since the boss has been back he's brought Claeys with him to the podium after games. In a sport rife with egos, they're hard to find here.
"Not one person, not 10 of us are going to turn the program around," Kill said. "It's a group effort."
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