When Tracy Claeys hit the speaking circuit last offseason, he told fans the Gophers football program had reached a point where it should be in contention for a Big Ten West title every November.
So far, the second-year coach is making good on that promise.
Saturday’s 40-17 victory at Illinois, coupled with Wisconsin’s overtime victory over Nebraska pulled the Gophers within one game of the Cornhuskers in the West Division. Minnesota is part of a four-team, second-place logjam that also includes Wisconsin, Iowa and Northwestern.
“A lot of teams play in November, and the games don’t mean anything,” Claeys said Sunday. “It’s nice to be in this position. And now, hopefully, we’ve got to do things well enough to take advantage of it.”
Beyond the standings, Claeys had another reason to feel pleased as October waned. The Gophers are a far healthier team entering November than they were last year.
“No comparison,” Claeys said, recalling the injuries that mounted last season along the offensive and defensive lines.
The Gophers squared off with Ohio State, Iowa and Wisconsin last November without their two starting defensive tackles — Steven Richardson and Scott Ekpe — leaving huge holes against the running game. And Minnesota’s offensive line was a patchwork unit all season.
This year, the defensive line is healthy and thriving. Richardson looks like a potential All-Big Ten selection, and Gaelin Elmore is making his presence felt. Ekpe had two fumble recoveries Saturday at Illinois, including one forced by his brother, Hank.
“The kids gave Scott grief because he couldn’t get it picked up,” Claeys said. “All the defensive kids wanted a defensive touchdown, and he had a chance to do it. But eventually he did the smart thing and fell on it.”
In a lopsided victory, it was another reason for the coaches to smile.
“Those kids have been here a while and worked hard,” Claeys said. “Scott’s playing awfully well, and Hank is playing the best that he’s played since he’s been here.”
A healthy defensive line is a big reason the Gophers rank fourth in the Big Ten in rushing defense after ranking 10th in that category last year.
And the Gophers have been able to weather their injuries along the offensive line. Senior tackle Jonah Pirsig has missed the past three games because of a sprained ankle, but Donnell Greene filled in for the victories over Maryland, Rutgers and Illinois.
Garrison Wright and Vincent Calhoun have been hobbled because of foot injuries, but both stayed on the field at Illinois.
“I think we will get Jonah back here soon, whether that means this week or not,” Claeys said. “That will make us better, but we’ve been able to develop some depth here over the last three games.”
The Gophers’ one significant injury now is tight end Brandon Lingen’s foot.
“If Brandon gets back, it will for the last game or so,” Claeys said.
Lingen is a difference-maker in the Gophers’ passing game. He had more than 100 yards receiving last year against Michigan and Iowa. That gave Mitch Leidner another target to go with Drew Wolitarsky, something missing now with other receivers battling inconsistency.
The Gophers will take what they can get from Lingen’s replacement, 6-10 redshirt junior Nate Wozniak. They have a strong chance of extending their winning streak to four games Saturday, when they face Purdue (3-5, 1-4 Big Ten) at TCF Bank Stadium.
Then, ready or not, the Gophers will enter the three-game stretch run — at No. 9 Nebraska, home against Northwestern, and at No. 8 Wisconsin.
Northwestern might not be ranked, but the Wildcats knocked off Iowa, Michigan State and Indiana before pushing Ohio State to the limit Saturday in a 28-24 loss.
The Gophers probably will need to play better than they have all season to keep this West Division title dream alive. But it was worth noting Saturday how little they celebrated becoming bowl eligible.
“We’re messing around in [the locker room] saying, ‘We’re going bowling,’ ” Wolitarsky said. “But again, we’re looking to go further and be contenders in November. The Big Ten championship is in our sight.”
Joe Christensen covers college football for the Star Tribune. E-mail: email@example.com