True enough, I did offer this sendoff in an article that appeared on the 1500ESPN.com Website concerning the 2013 University of Minnesota football team: “The Gophers can win four or five [Big Ten] games. And one of the best reasons for this should be effective play at quarterback, whether it’s [Mitch] Leidner, [Phil] Nelson or both.’’
I would ask that you hold your applause. This suggestion was made on Sept. 22, after the Gophers had gone 4-0 through the non-conference games and before they played the Big Ten opener at home against Iowa.
The Gophers stunk out TCF Bank Stadium for 60 minutes against the Hawkeyes, and they were blown out in the second half at Michigan Stadium by the Wolverines the next week, and this caused my tune to change substantially:
I went from looking at .500 in the Big Ten as doable, to wondering where the Gophers – without Purdue and Illinois on the schedule – were going to get a conference victory.
Lo and behold, there have been two at the on-campus stadium (Nebraska and Penn State) and two on the road (Northwestern and Indiana), for the Gophers’ first four-game winning streak in the Big Ten since 1973.
Forty years ago – so far back that I hadn’t even started practicing the art of writing smart-aleck observations on the futility of Gophers football at the time.
Wisconsin comes next, on Saturday in Minneapolis, and the winning streak has made it the biggest game for the Gophers in a decade: since Michigan came to the Metrodome on a Friday night in October 2003.
And a victory? I’m declaring that it would be the most-important win since the 1977 Gophers shut out No. 1-rated Michigan 16-0 at Memorial Stadium.
Glen Mason had a few good ones, but a win over Wisconsin would put the Gophers in position for a bowl game worth a cheer rather than a sneer. And if Michigan State loses at Northwestern, it would create a showdown in East Lansing for a berth in the Big Ten title game opposite Ohio State.
And if the Gophers were to win that; dang, I have to settle down here, even if I did spend 1 ½ of the best years of my life falling woefully short of a Liberal Arts degree at the U of M.
I did run into one fellow on Tuesday who did not seem completely shocked as to what has occurred with these Gophers … a country boy named Jerry Kill.
The Gophers have been holding a media gathering in the Gibson-Nagurski Building on Tuesdays for years. That’s the day a head coach also is expected to spend a few minutes on the Big Ten’s conference call. He does his duty there, then walks into a meeting room and takes questions for 20-25 minutes from Twin Cities reporters.
This was the third time I had joined the group this season. The first was before the Western Illinois game on Sept. 14. There was a bandage on Kill’s forehead and the rest of his face was a gray/red combo. He looked terrible.
Four days later, he had a seizure as his team was getting ready to leave the field at halftime. Later, there was information that the bandage covered a bump suffered during a seizure the previous weekend.
Kill returned to coach against San Jose State and Iowa, then underwent more seizures and was unable to make the trip to Michigan.
The drama continued: Kill visiting more experts in epilepsy. Tracy Claeys taking over as interim coach. Kill showing up in the press box at Northwestern, then getting more involved from the coaches box against Nebraska and at Indiana.
I attended another Tuesday news conference before the Nov. 9 game against Penn State. Kill showed up by himself (Claeys also had been there to answer questions a week earlier). This made it clear Kill was fully back in charge.
He looked good … not great.
The Gophers handled Penn State to make it four in a row. They had a second bye week in the Big Ten’s we-have-to-stretch-this-to-Thanksgiving schedule.
On Tuesday, there was the pre-Wisconsin media session and, I have to say, Country Jer looked great. His face was a healthy maroon more than the gray-blotched red of mid-September.
Kill always tries to come off as aw-shucks casual in these settings, and sometimes it’s forced. This time, he was true casual; excited for the Wisconsin game, for some “old-fashioned,’’ cold-weather, Midwestern football, but not overly excited.
To me, Country Jer had the look of a coach who came to Minnesota three years ago knowing that he would be coaching in XXXL games eventually, and deep down, he’s not shocked that one has arrived so soon.