The celebration had begun inside the Gophers locker room, but Jerry Kill was late.
The other coaches in the press box had hustled downstairs to greet the players after Saturday’s 34-23 victory over Nebraska, but Kill wasn’t ready to leave the booth.
“He said, ‘The heck with this, I’m sitting up here enjoying this scene, with all the people rushing the field,’ ” Gophers acting head coach Tracy Claeys said Sunday. “So he came down to the locker room after that.”
While Kill smiled down on the field, the national view of his program was improving, too. He had spoken all offseason about the need for a signature win, and here it was — the first victory for Minnesota over Nebraska since 1960.
“Congratulations to Minnesota on a huge win! Bowl eligible for second year in a row!” ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit tweeted to his 399,000 followers.
“Minnesota is one of the best stories in the Big Ten and the nation,” co-authors Brian Bennett and Adam Rittenberg wrote on ESPN.com. “How many teams could have withstood their coach taking a leave of absence in the middle of the season? The Gophers are not just surviving but thriving since Jerry Kill decided to focus on his epilepsy treatment.”
Tom Dienhart of BTN.com wrote, “The Minnesota story keeps getting better and better. … Someone call Hollywood.”
Kill’s first three recruiting classes have ranked toward the bottom of the Big Ten, but beating Nebraska should help.
Before, the Gophers could sell Kill’s track record of rebuilding other programs and point to the progress made in his first two seasons at Minnesota, after improving from 3-9 to 6-7. Now, they have their first victory over a ranked team, as Nebraska was No. 25 before falling out of the poll Sunday.
And it wasn’t just the final score, but the way the Gophers did it. Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover put on a clinic with a variety of jet-sweeps and misdirection plays. The Cornhuskers seemed to be guessing all day.
“I thought they outphysicaled us,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “That’s the most disappointing thing that I saw.”
In the Omaha World-Herald, Dirk Chatelain wrote, “If I had put Nebraska and Minnesota in shirts and skins, you wouldn’t have known which one has decades of tradition and which one doesn’t.
“Match up the same teams next Saturday and there’s no reason to think the same thing wouldn’t happen. The Gophers were better. More intelligent. More disciplined. More focused. More intense. Better.”
The Gophers could take these quotes and put them on a recruiting poster.
“The hard thing about it is so many [high school seniors] have already made up their minds,” Claeys said. “So it actually helps you with the following year probably more than it will this year.”
In the meantime, the Gophers (6-2, 2-2 in the Big Ten) can continue building from within. Claeys said nobody on the team would have been satisfied with six victories heading into the season. Their final four regular-season opponents are Indiana, Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan State, and their bowl game destination will depend on how well they finish.
Heading to Indiana next Saturday, the Gophers have no reason to be overconfident, as the early betting lines listed them as 9½-point underdogs. The Hoosiers (3-4, 1-2) got their signature win for third-year coach Kevin Wilson three weeks ago when they knocked off Penn State, and had a bye week to prepare for the Gophers after a 63-47 loss to Michigan.
“The thing that concerns me about Indiana is how well we’re going to tackle,” Claeys said. “They are athletic, and they spread you out, that’s what Kevin’s based that whole thing off.”
Like Nebraska, Indiana runs a no-huddle offense. The Gophers limited the Cornhuskers to 60 plays — 18 fewer than Nebraska’s season average — by controlling the ball for more than 35 of the game’s 60 minutes.
Claeys knows the Gophers will have to be every bit as prepared, if not more, to handle Indiana’s offense. But any external doubts about Minnesota’s ability to prevail in this type of game have been removed.
“Winning solves a lot of problems,” Claeys said. “That’s the bottom line.”