After the Minnesota Gophers’ all-too-familiar 42-13 loss to Michigan on Oct. 5, even the football team’s most optimistic fans could not imagine what would transpire over the next four weeks of Big Ten play.
Instead of letting their season spiral out of control, the young and hungry Gophers team went on the road to Evanston, Ill., and upset Northwestern. Head coach Jerry Kill, who had taken a medical leave after another gameday epileptic seizure, missed the Michigan loss. But he surprised the team by making the trip to Evanston and giving them a halftime pep talk.
Slowly easing back into his coaching duties, Kill has watched from the coaching booth — and danced in the locker room — as the team rode newfound momentum to wins over Nebraska, Indiana and Penn State. The oddsmakers listed the Gophers as underdogs in both the Nebraska and Indiana games, but with growing confidence the team embraced each challenge.
They face another daunting task Saturday when border rival Wisconsin visits TCF Bank Stadium in a battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe. The Badgers have won three consecutive Big Ten championships and will arrive in Minneapolis as two-touchdown favorites. They’ve also defeated the Gophers in nine consecutive games.
Whatever happens on the field Saturday and Nov. 30 at Michigan State, the 2013 Gophers season has been remarkable for its highs and lows. Kill and his staff deserve credit for building a team that has overcome unique distractions and refused to quit.
University President Eric Kaler and Athletic Director Norwood Teague have admirably stood by Kill as he’s worked to get his seizures under control. Kill’s refreshingly loyal assistant coaches, most notably acting head coach Tracy Claeys, have provided leadership and stability. It’s a great story, with two big games left in the regular season and a well-deserved bowl trip to a locale yet to be determined.
So the Gophers are underdogs again on Saturday. Big deal. This resilient team has given long-suffering fans much to be proud of in 2013 by beating the odds. Upsetting Wisconsin would be another huge brick in the solid foundation Kill is building at Minnesota. In this unique and encouraging season, don’t count them out.