Saturday’s victory at Indiana guaranteed the Gophers that this year will finish as a step forward. Now, they have a chance to turn it into a leap.
After going 3-9 and 6-7 in Jerry Kill’s first two seasons at Minnesota — and 2-6 in the Big Ten both times — the Gophers are 7-2, 3-2 in the conference.
On Saturday, they will play a beatable Penn State team at TCF Bank Stadium before closing the regular season with tougher tests against Wisconsin and Michigan State.
The Gophers will have another bye week to regroup after the Penn State game, and here’s what a victory would mean:
• It would be the first eight-win season since they went 10-3 in 2003 under Glen Mason.
• It would be their first time with four Big Ten victories since they went 4-4 under Mason in 2005.
• It would give them four consecutive Big Ten victories for the first time since 1973 under Cal Stoll.
“We don’t really pay attention to it,” Kill said Sunday. “When I talked to the [players] last week, I said, ‘You need to enjoy the pats on the back. … You need to soak it in, and enjoy the moments. … But you can’t forget where you came from.’ ”
The Gophers flourished as underdogs, beating Northwestern, Nebraska and Indiana, but early betting lines are calling the Penn State game more of a toss-up.
The Nittany Lions (5-3, 2-2) needed overtime at home on Saturday to defeat an Illinois team that has dropped 18 consecutive Big Ten games, dating to 2011. Last month, Indiana defeated Penn State 44-24, but Bill O’Brien’s team came back the next and beat Michigan at home, also in overtime.
“There are a ton of good coaches in the Big Ten, but there’s nobody that did what that guy [O’Brien] did last year, with all the adversity that he faced,” Kill said. “That guy can coach football … and he’ll have his kids ready to play.”
It’s one of four trophy games for the Gophers. The teams will play for the Governor’s Victory Bell, which Minnesota last won in 2004. The Gophers are 0-4 against Penn State since then, with the last meeting coming in 2010, the year before Kill arrived.
Kill said the Gophers need their fans to pack the stadium and that the players have to come out hungry. But he doesn’t want to overstate the importance, either.
“I think we’re playing pretty loose right now,” he said. “I think early, we were pressing so much, and now they’re just playing hard and having fun, and not panicking.”
Kill pointed to the go-ahead drive at Indiana. The Gophers had squandered a 22-point lead and trailed the Hoosiers 39-35. But after returning from a hip pointer injury, sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson hit redshirt freshman tight end Maxx Williams for a 50-yard touchdown pass.
“We had to go down and score and threw the touchdown; that hasn’t happened since I’ve been here anyway,” Kill said. “We usually [hit] the panic button, and I promise you most people were going, ‘Oh, here we go again.’ ”
The Gophers caught their biggest break of the season with 25 seconds remaining, when Indiana tried a screen pass from the Gophers 9. Nate Sudfeld threw the ball backwards, behind running back Tevin Coleman, and after a painstaking pause, Gophers linebacker Aaron Hill grabbed the ball, securing the victory.
“I think every coach will tell you, ‘We’ve got a lot of room to get better yet,’ ” Kill said. “But [Saturday] was a prime example that if you play hard, sometimes things fall your way.”
Christenson has surgery
Starting center Jon Christenson had surgery Sunday after suffering a season-ending left leg injury in Saturday’s game. Kill couldn’t provide other details but said, “I just feel terrible. The game of football’s a great game, but it’s a hard game, and ... [Christenson] is a beautiful kid, and smart, so it’s a shame.”
Kill added, “It’s a shame, however the kid that came in [at center] just did a tremendous job — Tommy Olson. So that’s why we always preach about depth.”