EVANSTON, ILL. – The game started at 11 a.m., which means Jerry and Rebecca Kill must have left their Minneapolis home before 4 a.m. to make the seven-hour drive to Northwestern.
Gophers acting head coach Tracy Claeys said he didn’t know Kill, who is on indefinite leave to treat his epilepsy, was coming Saturday until an hour before the game.
Players didn’t know he was coming until halftime, when he walked into the middle of the Gophers locker room and gave a quick speech.
“That gave us the little edge we needed,” Gophers quarterback Philip Nelson said.
Tied at halftime after an ugly 30 minutes for both teams, the Gophers went on to reward Kill with the biggest victory in his three-year tenure at Minnesota, defeating Northwestern 20-17 before an announced crowd of 36,587 at Ryan Field.
Claeys said there is still no timetable for Kill’s return to work, but this was viewed as a sign he is making good progress.
“I was asked if he would watch the game [on television] if he wasn’t there; I couldn’t answer it,” Claeys said. “So that’s your answer: He jumps in a car and gets his wife to drive him. But it also shows you, those kids mean a lot to him, they really do.”
Kill watched the game from a press box coaching booth, though team officials said he wasn’t giving instructions. He left without commenting to reporters. Team officials said he didn’t want his appearance to overshadow what his players did on the field.
The Gophers (5-2, 1-2 Big Ten) came in as 12½-point underdogs but moved one victory from becoming bowl-eligible.
Three weeks ago, Northwestern was ranked No. 17 and held a fourth-quarter lead against No. 4 Ohio State. But with quarterback Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark both out because of ankle injuries Saturday, the Wildcats (4-3, 0-3) didn’t look like the same team.
The Gophers held Northwestern to 94 yards rushing and intercepted Trevor Siemian twice, while breaking their own two-game losing streak.
“I don’t know how to compare it to other wins,” Gophers receiver Derrick Engel said.
“Illinois last year was big because that got us to a bowl game. If you can go on the road in the Big Ten and beat a team like Northwestern that was ranked [17th] just two weeks ago, that’s big for our confidence.”
Mitch Leidner got the start at quarterback for the Gophers, but after four first-quarter punts they turned to Nelson. The sophomore immediately guided them on a 72-yard drive, capped with a 29-yard touchdown pass to Engel.
But the Gophers missed a chance to take a lead heading into halftime, when Chris Hawthorne missed a 44-yard field goal as time expired.
The second half brought more frustration, as the Gophers had a 30-yard, fourth-down touchdown pass from Nelson to Isaac Fruechte wiped out because of a questionable pass interference call on Drew Wolitarsky.
But moments later, Gophers linebacker James Manuel intercepted Siemian and ran 24 yards for an easy touchdown, giving the Gophers a 14-7 lead.
“I said, ‘Make sure I catch it,’ ” Manuel said.
“Then I looked behind me to make sure there was nobody else there, and I had the green light to go.”
Hawthorne atoned for his earlier miss with two fourth-quarter field goals. Northwestern made the Gophers sweat by converting three fourth downs on a 75-yard touchdown drive that trimmed the lead to 20-17 with 2:07 remaining.
Northwestern tried an onside kick, but it didn’t go the requisite 10 yards. The Gophers sealed the victory with two first downs, including a 7-yard scramble by Nelson on third-and-6 from the Wildcats 28-yard line.
“They told me to stay in bounds and keep the clock running,” Nelson said. “And I thought a chance to get the first down, so it was just a sprint to the pylon.”
And soon it was a sprint around the field for the Gophers, who slapped hands with the fans who showed up wearing maroon and gold.
Kill spoke to the team again after the game, then hopped back in the car for the ride home.
“He told all of us he was proud of us, and that’s the best compliment you can get,” Claeys said. “He’s got a lot of hours a lot of time invested in this, and the other thing that makes this so special, we needed to win a game for the people of Minnesota.
“They’ve been patient with us, and we understand everybody wants to win right now. I’m awfully proud that the kids battled and represented the university in the way it should be represented.”