The Gophers' locker room celebration in Champaign was noisy and raucous on Saturday, Jerry Kill said, his players' delight over qualifying for a bowl game with a 17-3 victory over Illinois obvious. But the coach said he was struck, too, by a much quieter moment shortly afterward, a vignette that sums up his program's current state.
As the players sang, shouted and joked, Kill climbed on the team bus parked just outside and noticed his assistant coaches, already at work toward next week's game with Nebraska.
"You let the kids enjoy it, but as a coach, you keep trying to move forward. Because this isn't where we want to be," Kill said a day later. "You get on the bus, you get a piece of Kentucky Fried Chicken, and you find out Alabama got beat. Then you start talking football again, and all of a sudden, the coaches have their computers on, grading film and getting ahead."
Yes, the Meineke Car Care Bowl, or wherever the Gophers land next month, is a milestone, but it's nowhere near the destination Kill has in mind. Yes, he hopes to celebrate -- in a few more years.
For now, even with his team's No. 1 goal accomplished this year, Kill has new worries. He must refocus his team on the season's final two games, against Nebraska and Michigan State, without the specter of bowl eligibility to motivate them. And, oh yeah -- he has to find someone to snap the ball.
Starting center Jon Christenson suffered a high ankle sprain in his left leg, an injury that figures to sideline him for a week or two, and backup center Zach Mottla, who flew home with his leg in an air cast, is out for the season after suffering a serious injury that the Gophers haven't specified. It would be unfair to activate a redshirting freshman this late in the season, so Kill is left with left guard Zac Epping to start at the position next week, since he trained for the job in training camp.
And backing up Epping will be ... hmm. Any volunteers?
"We've got a lot of thinking to do," Kill said. "We'll have to teach somebody to snap."
To catch as well, since receivers A.J. Barker and Derrick Engel remain out because of ankle injuries of their own, and Kill sounded pessimistic about their recovery. "First time in 30 years I've experienced the injury bug on the offensive side of the ball like we have," the coach said. "It's been a nightmare up front."
But it's been a dream, or at least a pleasure, for the bowl-bound Gophers, particularly those who have lived through the rough years.
"Guys who are older, some of them have been through four, five, six coaches, positionwise. For them to go through that, and have a coach come in and say he wants to build a program brick by brick, that's not really what they want to hear. They want to do it right now," Kill said of his seniors. "It was very emotional for those guys, and it was good to see a smile on their faces."
Especially since a couple of them made critical plays. Brandon Green, for instance, reached behind him to catch a 13-yard pass on third down that helped keep the go-ahead drive alive Saturday.
"Grandpa," laughed tailback Donnell Kirkwood about his 23-year-old teammate. "He's been doing that since I got here. He's got the hands."
"Sometimes when you get in pressure situations," Kill added, "you go back to those wily ol' veterans."
He could have been speaking of linebacker Mike Rallis, too. The senior from Edina ended Illinois' comeback hopes by punching the ball out of Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase's hands as he tried to stretch for a first down on third-and-inches, a fumble that safety Derrick Wells scooped up.
"I was just trying to push him back, and he held it out there," Rallis said. "I tried to knock it loose."
Kill has tried to knock loose the doldrums that gripped the program as it spiraled to the bottom of the league. On Saturday, he proved he's managed to make small but notable progress.
And on Sunday, he went right back to trying to make more. "When you do win," Kill shrugged, "you don't enjoy it enough."
Phil Miller • email@example.com