When told his Gophers football team is a slight favorite heading into Saturday’s game against Penn State, coach Jerry Kill said he wished he could do something to change that.
The Gophers have thrived as underdogs the past three weeks, knocking off Northwestern, Nebraska and Indiana. If they beat Penn State, the Gophers will have four consecutive Big Ten wins in the same season for the first time since 1973.
They’d also have their first eight-win season since they finished 10-3 under Glen Mason in 2003, which would strengthen Minnesota’s chances of landing one of the Big Ten’s top five bowl berths.
“I’m not going to downplay it,” Kill said. “It’s an important game, but our kids have been pretty loose, having fun, and you don’t want to get them all tied up. If you’re all nervous and tight, you don’t play very good, and we did that against Iowa.”
The Gophers were slight underdogs heading into their Sept. 28 home game against Iowa and turned in their worst performance of the season in a 23-7 loss.
“I think we all learned a valuable lesson, including myself,” Kill said. “I’ve certainly learned it over the last month — that you’ve got to have fun, you’ve got to enjoy it. And so I think our kids have taken on that personality.”
Kill missed the Oct. 5 trip to Michigan after suffering another seizure. He began a leave of absence to treat his epilepsy five days later, and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys took over as acting head coach during the bye week.
The Gophers focused on getting healthy and returned as a changed team on Oct. 19 at Northwestern. Kill sensed it when he visited the team at practice the day before that trip.
“I didn’t step back on purpose, but sometimes you have to be away from something and then come back in [to grasp how things have changed],” Kill said. “When I came back to practice — and maybe it’s because I’d been away from it — but our kids seemed to be hopping around pretty good. I think that [Northwestern] game did a lot for the kids and coaches.
“Those guys have helped me; they’ve picked it up. I go to practice right now, I don’t have to say ‘Hustle up!’ or ‘Get your rear end in gear!’ They do it.”
Kill has been at every practice the past three weeks and has taken on more and more of his old duties heading into each game. But he said it’s best for him and the team if he stays in the coaching booth again Saturday.
The Gophers have a bye next week before finishing the regular season with games against Wisconsin and Michigan State. At 7-2 overall and 3-2 in the Big Ten, Minnesota is still alive in the Legends Division race.
A win over Penn State would stir even more excitement heading into the Nov. 23 home game against Wisconsin. The Gophers might even crack the Top 25, after getting enough votes last weekend to sit 31st in the Associated Press and No. 30 in the coaches’ poll.
The Gophers haven’t been ranked in the Top 25 since they were at No. 20 before a loss to Northwestern under Tim Brewster on Nov. 1, 2008.
“Personally, I don’t want to be [ranked]; I like being the underdog,” senior cornerback Brock Vereen said. “But if it comes, it’d be great for this program, and if we keep on this track, we inevitably will [be ranked].”
Most current bowl projections have the Gophers playing in either the Dec. 27 Texas Bowl against a Big 12 team such as Kansas State, or in the Jan. 1 Gator Bowl against an SEC team such as Ole Miss.
A lot can happen between now and the Dec. 8 bowl selection day, of course. If the Big Ten lands two BCS berths — many are projecting Ohio State and Wisconsin getting in — that will help the Gophers get to a better bowl.
Once the BCS pairings are announced, including the Rose Bowl, the Big Ten’s bowl pecking order goes as follows:
1) Capital One Bowl (Jan. 1, Orlando, Fla.)
2) Outback Bowl (Jan. 1, Tampa, Fla.)
3) Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl (Dec. 28, Tempe, Ariz.)
4) Gator Bowl (Jan. 1, Jacksonville, Fla.)
5) Texas Bowl (Dec. 27, Houston)
6) Heart of Dallas Bowl (Jan. 1, Dallas)
7) Little Caesars Bowl (Dec. 26, Detroit)
The Texas Bowl was known as the Meineke Car Care Bowl last year, and that’s where the Gophers landed, thanks in part to Ohio State and Penn State being ineligible for bowls. The Gophers lost 34-31 to Texas Tech, but Kill still raves about the exposure that prime-time performance on ESPN gave to the program.
The bowl selections don’t have to be made based on records, so the Gophers could finish 7-5, for example, and still see a 6-6 Iowa team land in a better bowl. Historically, Minnesota fans don’t travel in the same numbers as Iowa, Nebraska and Michigan fans, so that could pose a challenge. But an eighth victory would give the Gophers more leverage.
But bowl representatives often say they like to showcase programs on the rise. By beating Penn State, the Gophers would have a strong case, no matter what happens the final two weeks of the regular season.