The Gophers football team posted video of Saturday’s postgame celebration on YouTube, showing the emotion inside the locker room as acting head coach Tracy Claeys and a special visitor named Jerry Kill addressed the players.
“You’re better than you think you are,” Claeys said, following the 20-17 victory at Northwestern. “If you show up, and you play hard, and you believe in yourselves, there’s not a game left we can’t win.”
Kill followed by saying, “You need to understand that what Coach [Claeys] has told you is right.”
Starting right tackle Josh Campion told Kill how much the players love him, then pulled everyone together for a quick cheer: “One, two, three … Coach Kill!”
It was one of the proudest days the Gophers have had in Kill’s three seasons as head coach. Minnesota was a 12½-point underdog but took advantage of a Northwestern team playing without two of its offensive standouts, Kain Colter and Venric Mark.
And the Gophers did it with Kill watching from the coaching booth. He surprised them by having his wife, Rebecca, drive him from their Minneapolis home that morning.
Kill remained on leave Sunday, but Claeys said that if all goes well with the epilepsy treatments, Kill likely would watch Saturday’s home game against Nebraska from the coaching booth.
Claeys said it’s also possible Kill would stop by practice this week, just to be around the team. Those would be considered steps in his progression toward returning full-time.
“In my opinion, I don’t anticipate it’ll be all of a sudden, wham, he’s back going full speed,” Claeys said. “There’ll be a buildup to it, and when the time’s right, he’ll be ready to go.”
Like last week, Claeys said he plans to name a starting quarterback on Tuesday. That got muddled again against Northwestern, when Philip Nelson relieved Mitch Leidner and had far more success moving the offense.
Leidner ran five series, and the Gophers quickly had to punt each time. Nelson ran eight series, and the Gophers had to punt just twice.
Claeys said no matter who starts against Nebraska, the non-starter will see time in the first half, just as the plan went against Northwestern.
“The one thing I can tell you we’re not going to do, we’re not going to get into alternating series,” Claeys said. “I just don’t believe in that. I think you play the guy who gives you the best opportunity to win.”
At 5-2, the Gophers are one win from becoming bowl-eligible. Claeys said they came out of the Northwestern game relatively healthy with the only new injuries of note being to return man Marcus Jones (ankle) and left tackle Ben Lauer (shoulder).
Rodrick Williams played on special teams but not at tailback. That wasn’t injury-related.
“Rodrick has got to grow up a little bit off the field,” Claeys said. “He’s a good football player, and we need him, but the principles are in place that we’ve set since we’ve been here.
“He had a little bit of a rough week off the field on things he was asked to do. So as soon as he takes care of those issues we’ll make sure we get him back in there.”
David Cobb led the Gophers with 20 carries for 103 yards, and Donnell Kirkwood continued working his way back from an ankle injury. Claeys said he told the players the story last week of Wally Pipp, who famously took a day off with the Yankees in 1925, only to get replaced by Lou Gehrig, who played the next 2,130 games.
“We’re getting finally to where we’ve got some depth,” Claeys said. “You better be careful. You take a day off, the guy behind you is going to take your job, and you won’t see the field again.”
Claeys also explained the team’s cautious play-calling before Chris Hawthorne missed a 44-yard field goal to end the first half.
“I told the offensive guys, ‘Hey, be careful with the football here,’ ” Claeys said, noting that the team fell behind late in the first half against Michigan in an eventual 42-13 loss.
“Going into halftime tied 7-7 on the road — there’s no shame in that,” Claeys said. “And we felt like momentum had turned our way in the second quarter, and I didn’t want to do anything to give that back to them.”
In that sense, it worked. After a strong second half, especially defensively, the Gophers were in the locker room, celebrating with Kill.