As the seconds ticked off on the scoreboard at TCF Stadium, the end of the Gophers football team’s unexpected 34-23 victory over No. 25 Nebraska on Saturday, there was a tap on my shoulder in my press box seat at TCF Bank Stadium.
Turning around I found it was the University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler, who was very excited about the fact that the Gophers had won two Big Ten games in a row since the end of the 2010 season, when they beat Illinois and Iowa under interim coach Jeff Horton.
After that season, Kaler was involved in the hiring of Jerry Kill and his staff, and he said the Gophers are in good hands and that more victories are ahead for the young group of football players.
At every other place where Kill has coached, he has taken over a rundown football program and turned it around to win by its third year.
This is Kill’s third year, and after successive losses to Iowa and Michigan, it didn’t appear there was any chance of that happening here.
But now after qualifying for a second consecutive bowl appearance, you think anything could happen with this team if it plays like it did against Northwestern and Nebraska the past two weeks.
The Gophers had lost 16 in a row to the Cornhuskers, last won in 1960, and Saturday they beat a team that had lost only once all year, to UCLA. After falling behind 10-0, the Gophers got going against Nebraska the way UCLA did in winning 41-21 after trailing 21-3 in the second quarter.
Acting coach Tracy Claeys talked about how tremendous the mood of the team was.
“Not one time did you think that the kids panicked,” Claeys said. “They all stayed in there together. It’s all about confidence. I couldn’t be prouder of them. We’ve gotten better in the weight room, our academics are better. Those kids are up there till 10 o’clock at night doing study halls and tutors. They’re putting in a hell of a lot of time right now, and it’s good to see them get rewarded for all the hard work they’re putting in.”
Now they have to win at Indiana next week to keep building up the excitement.
Ponder ready for chance
The last time Christian Ponder suited up against the Green Bay Packers, he played his best game of the 2012 season, capping off an extremely effective four-game stretch in which he helped the Vikings into the playoffs.
Now, he will get another chance to try and turn a Vikings season around and prove that he can be the player the team saw at the end of last year, when facing Green Bay he completed 16 of 28 passes for 234 yards and three touchdowns, posting a 120.2 QB rating that stands as the best of his career.
Still it’s interesting to note that if it wasn’t for the concussion suffered by Josh Freeman on Monday night, Ponder likely wouldn’t be in this position.
With that in mind, Ponder was asked how he felt when the 2011 first-round pick got the news that he would get another shot to start.
“I was excited,” he said. “You know it’s an opportunity for me to get out there and get this job back and we’re playing a rivalry game against the Packers at home. I’m really looking forward to it, and it’s a way for me to get this job back.
“We want to get back on track. We don’t like our record right now and we know it’s going to be a tough game, but I think just from the attitude of the guys this week, everyone is understanding that we have a sense of urgency that we need to win, and we need to start now.”
Ponder also said the offense should be able to have a more diverse playbook this week compared to last week against the Giants. “[Freeman] was put in a tough situation and a difficult situation, but we do have a little bit more in this week,” Ponder said.
Does Ponder think he will be rusty since he hasn’t played since Week 3?
“I was running our scout team, and every time during the scout team period we would run our offense, so I got that experience,” he said of his time behind Matt Cassel and Freeman on the depth chart. “I feel like the past few weeks I’ve been practicing well.”
Feels healthy, ready to improve
One has to wonder if the Vikings would even be in this quarterback quandary if Ponder hadn’t fractured his rib against Cleveland on Sept. 22, but he says that injury is healed.
“It’s good, it feels good,” he said. “I am, absolutely [ready], there’s no doubt in my mind that I’m ready to go.”
What does he expect out of himself for this game?
“Do some things better, do some things better,” said the 25-year-old. “I’m excited for this opportunity. It’s going to be fun. The biggest thing for me is going out there, and for all of us, to go have fun and enjoy this.”
Ponder believes that this game is the game for him to reclaim his role as the Vikings QB of the future.
“I’m hoping that I’ll be out there for the rest of the year,” he said. “You know, I was always preparing myself, I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, to be honest with you. I was always preparing myself as if I was going to be able to get out there and play. In football, you’re always one injury away from playing if you’re not starting, and it just worked out this way.”
• Twins President Dave St. Peter on season ticket renewals for 2014: “Needless to say when you come off of the type of years that we have, there are folks who are invested in this team who might have questions or what have you, and we understand that. At the same time we do have the All-Star Game and that’s obviously quite a compelling piece in and of itself. I suspect when it’s all said and done we’re going to renew somewhere between 80-90 percent of our season ticket accounts, which is still a very strong number.”
• With former Gophers nemesis Robbie Hummel making the Timberwolves roster, the former Purdue forward was asked what it’s like to play with Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio. “They’re great professional players, there’s no doubt about that,” Hummel said. “When you get to play behind a guy like Kevin Love and see what he does and see how he prepares every day, it’s only going to help you as a player. … In terms of playing with Ricky, it’s just whenever you have a point guard that can find you like that, that’s something you like as a shooter.”
• With the 76ers cutting Royce White, it appears as though fellow former Gophers forward Rodney Williams made the team despite signing as an undrafted free agent. Meanwhile, former Gophers center Ralph Sampson III played his first game with the Nilan Bisons in Finland on Wednesday. He grabbed four rebounds and scored two points in eight minutes.
• Alex Meyer continues to look very good in the Arizona Fall League pitching for Glendale. He has thrown 12⅓ innings in four starts, striking out 12 and giving up four runs for a 2.92 ERA. He is 2-0. Fellow Twins prospect Byron Buxton is hitting only .200 through seven games, going 0-for-4 with three strikeouts Saturday. But the outfielder has two homers and five RBI.