There were indications Sunday that the University of Minnesota will try this week to secure an agreement to make Tracy Claeys head football coach, removing his interim tag.
University officials have watched Claeys lead the Gophers through two hard-fought games since Jerry Kill retired Oct. 28, losing to then-No. 15 Michigan and then-No. 1 Ohio State.
As disappointing as the Halloween loss to Michigan was, with the bungled clock management, Claeys got a peak performance from a squad that lost its head coach just three days earlier.
The Gophers also gave Ohio State a bit of a fourth-quarter scare Saturday before falling to 4-5 overall and 1-4 in the Big Ten.
“I hate to use the cliché ‘Minnesota might be the best 1-4 team in any conference,’ ” ABC’s Brad Nessler said during the telecast. “But I tell you, after seeing them the last couple weeks, they have fought their guts out.”
As the Gophers near an official switch to Claeys as head coach, Nessler’s words might not fully appease fans who are frustrated that the team has lost eight of its past 12 games, dating to last season.
But it’s not like they’ve been getting picked off by inferior teams. According to Gophers research, this is also one of their toughest stretches on record.
Minnesota’s final four opponents last season (Ohio State, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Missouri) were all ranked in the AP Top 25.
And the Gophers could finish this year with six of 12 games against ranked opponents, if Wisconsin holds on, after climbing to No. 23 on Sunday.
The Gophers also played a stretch of 10 ranked opponents in 16 games from 1990-92, but Michigan was the highest ranked of the bunch, at No. 4.
This stretch includes games against Ohio State and Texas Christian, when they were No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, at the time. And beyond the early 1990s, the Gophers haven’t played this many ranked opponents in a 16-game stretch since the AP poll debuted in 1936.
Claeys would inherit full command of a team that picked a bad year to get hit with a huge spate of injuries.
They played Ohio State without three starting offensive linemen (Ben Lauer, Brian Bobek and Josh Campion) and both starting defensive tackles (Steven Richardson and Scott Ekpe). They’ve been without safety Damarius Travis and tight end Lincoln Plsek for most of the season.
Cornerback Jalen Myrick injured his ribs on Saturday’s opening kickoff. He continued to play but needed to stay at a Columbus hospital for observation. Claeys said he hopes Myrick can return home Monday.
“He will be fine, but I would be shocked if he was ready to go for next weekend,” Claeys said.
Claeys also wasn’t sure if running backs Shannon Brooks (shoulder) and Rodney Smith (ankle) would be ready for Saturday’s game at No. 8 Iowa.
So the record is bleak, and the injury picture keeps getting worse, but the Gophers still have plenty at stake the next three weeks. They need to win two of their final three games to ensure bowl eligibility for the fourth consecutive season.
Side note: It’s also possible they could reach a bowl at 5-7. With 40 bowl games, there probably won’t be enough six-win teams to fill all the spots, but that’s another story.
To reach the six-win mark, the Gophers probably need to beat Illinois at home Nov. 21, and then knock off one of their border rivals, either Iowa or Wisconsin.
The 9-0 Hawkeyes will be tough to beat Saturday under the lights at Kinnick Stadium. The Wisconsin game is at home, but the Gophers haven’t defeated the Badgers since 2003.
Even the Illinois game is hardly a lock. The Illini (5-4) upset Minnesota last year and stopped a three-game losing streak Saturday with a 48-14 rout of Purdue.
“It’s a matter or readjusting your goals to finish out the last three weeks of the season,” Claeys said. “There is still some candy there at the end of the season. It’s not as big a piece of candy as you wanted when the year started, but there are still some things there. Our kids will play hard.”