The Gophers led by only a touchdown last Saturday, and eight minutes still remained to play. So Jerry Kill's decision to run a play on fourth-and-five from the Illinois 32, rather than send in his field-goal kicker or punter, may have seemed like a spur-of-the-moment gamble.
But it was really a decision that had been made three hours earlier, Kill said.
"You don't want the guys that worked their tail ends off all week long (to lose because) the head coach goes and makes a crazy decision," Kill said. "So we talk about it (ahead of time). We try to get everybody on the same page -- 'We may do this. How do you feel about it?' "
That happens every week, Kill said; he and his staff discuss as many situations that may come up as they can, and write down their consensus so they don't need much discussion at the time.
In the case of the Gophers' eventual 17-3 victory over Illinois, Kill had prepared for just such a call since the moment he got off the bus. Rather than head to the coaches' office in Memorial Stadium, he headed straight for the field. "It's always windy in Champaign. So I walked around and checked the wind conditions from my standpoint," Kill said. "Then we got the punters and kickers out there. I grabbed a seat, got my chart out and watched our guys kick."
After writing down his observations, he then he discussed the conditions -- a stiff wind of 20-25 mph blew from the south end zone to the north during the entire game -- with the kickers and special teams coach Jay Sawvel. They concluded that Jordan Wettstein could reliably hit a field goal from no farther than 40 yards kicking to the south, meaning the ball had to be on the 25 or closer. But when they were headed north, Kill said he would have been comfortable trying a field goal of up to 57 yards. "That's how strong the wind was," he said.
The turf between the 30 and 40 yard lines is a sort of no-man's-land for coaches, often too far to kick a field goal, since the defense would get the ball at that spot if the kick misses. But in Kill's opinion, it's also too close to punt, since any kick that reaches the end zone comes out to the 20; with so little yardage to gain, the odds of converting the fourth down seem worth trying. "It's always a close decision," he said.
So when the Gophers' drive stalled at the 32 in the fourth quarter, Kill briefly discussed taking a delay-of-game penalty, in order to back up five yards and give punter Christian Eldred more of a cushion for a pin-them-deep punt. He considered, just for a moment, having Eldred try a rugby-style punt in order to keep it from rolling into the end zone. And he had already reviewed the pregame findings with Wettstein.
"I went down to Jordan as we were moving the ball (and said), 'Hey, are you sure we can't go from 30?' You can tell if they go, 'Oh yeah, Coach, let's go.' Or, 'Aw, (I don't know),' " Kill said. "I didn't get that, 'Hey, I'm ready to stick it.' So we made a decision."
They tried a pass that Brandon Green couldn't hold on to, and the ball went back to Illinois. But the Gophers' defense held, and the decision ultimately didn't matter.
"There are some games when you know you're going to have to go make a play," said Kill, whose team is 7-for-15 on fourth downs this year. "You're going to have to roll the dice."
But it's not as big a gamble if you game-plan ahead of time.