Don't Look Now, but Minnesota Could Be on Its Way to Relevancy in the Big Ten
Minnesota Golden Gophers football hasn't been to back-to-back bowl games since the 2008-2009 seasons, but after upsetting No. 24 Nebraska on Saturday to go 6-2 on the season, the team will be going bowling for a second straight campaign.
Instead of celebrating just getting to bowl eligibility, the team can now focus on other goals with a month left in the season.
"A year ago we celebrated the sixth win because it was late in the season," said acting head coach Tracy Claeys after the game. "We had Nebraska and Michigan State left a year ago, but now we have our sixth win in October and we can reset our goals. We're going to work hard and set out to do something better than what we have done in the past."
However, don't expect anyone in the Gophers locker room or on the coaching staff to be surprised that this is happening, and that's because history suggests we should've all seen this coming.
After all, at his last two stops, Jerry Kill coached teams have made huge jumps in year three—going from 4-8 in 2002 at Southern Illinois to 10-2 in 2003, and going from 7-6 in 2009 at Northern Illinois to 10-3 in 2010.
In fact, just a few weeks ago, Coach Kill talked about getting a "signature win" at his previous stops as the catalyst for a turnaround in his third years at both of those schools.
At Southern Illinois it was a 37-32 victory over then No. 2 ranked Western Illinois in that 2003 season. At Northern Illinois it was a 34-23 win in 2010 over his future employer, Minnesota.
Fast forward to today and the Gophers have made it three straight stops in which Kill and his staff of dedicated and long-term coaches notched a signature win in year three.
However, don't call it a fluke either, as Minnesota took the Huskers best shot—getting down 10-0 to start the game, but rallying to score 17 unanswered points to take a 17-10 lead at the half. The Gophers never looked back.
What may have been the most impressive part of the Gophers performance was the fact that they did it against a team with a full extra week to prepare for this game. You wouldn't have known it by the results on the field and that, more than anything else, is a testament to the progress this team has made under Kill and his coaching staff.
"We talked about how Nebraska had two weeks to prepare and we're not sure what we're going to see from the other team, and Nebraska came out right away and got after us," said Claeys. "Our kids kept staying positive, though and we moved the ball while taking some time off the clock and allowing the defense to regroup."
"I told the team to play hard and do their job and when they look up in the fourth quarter they're going to have an opportunity to win and sure enough we did."
While the Gophers may have struggled the previous two years to impart the physical style Kill preaches, it's impossible not to recognize that it has clicked this year.
Minnesota is averaging 65 yards more a game on the ground this season than last, with virtually the same roster of players. The same transformation has occurred on the other side of the ball as well, where the Gophers are allowing 40 yards fewer a game on the ground.
Those numbers, combined with more rushing touchdowns already this year (19) than all of last year (14), give you the blueprint to how Minnesota is winning games and becoming relevant in the Big Ten this season.
With tests against Indiana, Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan State coming up, the Gophers have a chance to make a huge statement of just how viable they will be in the conference.
For now, though, Minnesota can enjoy the fact that it has just made the rest of the conference stand up and take notice.
*Andy Coppens is the lead writer for the Big Ten. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. You can follow Andy on Twitter: @ andycoppens.
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