Before the season began, Jerry Kill refused to consider Little Caesars Pizza, downplayed Buffalo Wild Wings, didn't dare to dream of Outback steak.
But wow, is the Gophers coach hungry now.
"Our goal is to try to get [his graduating seniors] to a bowl game," Kill said Tuesday, making it clear that any of those pizzas, wings or steaks -- the title sponsors of three games in the Big Ten's bowl lineup -- would be fine with him, not to mention bowls named for Meineke Car Care, taxslayer.com, or the Heart of Dallas. "That's what we need to do."
Here's one more thing the Gophers need to do: Beat Purdue on Saturday. With five games remaining in the season, Minnesota needs two more victories to become eligible for its first bowl berth since 2009, and by coincidence, there are two winless teams (in Big Ten play) remaining on the Gophers schedule. The Boilermakers, a disappointing 3-4 after being touted as a Leaders Division dark horse this season, are one, and Illinois, which will play host to the Gophers on Nov. 10, is the other.
Those two games appear the most winnable for the Gophers by far, and Kill, who warily declined in August to posit a bowl game as his chief goal for his second season at Minnesota, is using that fact to motivate his team this week.
"We've got to find a way to rally the wagons here a little bit," Kill said. "We need to reward the seniors who have gone through so much."
They've certainly been through this before: The Gophers are on a three-game losing streak and at the bottom of the Legends Division again. Their progress has stalled since Big Ten play began, and while they have found reason for optimism in each successive loss, they might need a reminder, Kill said, of what's left to play for in 2012.
And there is plenty, he said.
"We're moving the program forward," Kill said. "Everything we accomplish in these [next five games] will help us keep that momentum next year, so we don't go back to square one. You don't get many opportunities to play a game, so shame on you if you don't take advantage of the ones you've got."
That's why the switch to freshman Philip Nelson at quarterback turned out to be a surprisingly easy call. Kill and his coaches tried to preserve Nelson's redshirt season, but now that he has been forced into the lineup, getting him experience in all kinds of situations might be the most important thing the Gophers do for the rest of the season.
"Our job is to make sure we keep teaching them. We have to be really good teachers right now," Kill said. "... Every snap that Philip takes gives him a little better understanding of what it takes to be successful."
Nelson got a crash course in that understanding on Saturday, completing 13 of 24 passes, two of them for touchdowns -- but two that were intercepted, too. He was nervous, he said, but his focus on the game made those jitters disappear after the first series. And he's far more ready than he was only a few months ago.
"I just remember last spring, everything was moving so fast, it was a blur," the 19-year-old starting quarterback said. "Being here in the spring helped a lot to clear up the picture. I feel a lot more confident out there."
Growing confidence in a few other young players, and identifying who might grow into next year's contributors, is another big goal for October and November. The Gophers don't have many seniors, but some are in critical roles, such as cornerbacks Troy Stoudermire and Michael Carter, linebackers Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper, and defensive end D.L. Wilhite; finding successors is something that can begin now.
"I tell [the underclassmen] all the time, 'Some of y'all got to separate out a little bit,' " Kill said. "... We're trying to win now. But what we do now can help us win down the road."
• Left tackle Ed Olson won't practice this week nor play on Saturday, Kill said, because of a leg injury he sustained against Northwestern, but his brother Tommy, the Gophers' left guard, is improving to the point where he could play if necessary.
• Receivers Devin Crawford-Tufts and Isaac Fruechte, who missed Saturday's game because of concussions, have been cleared to return this week. ... Safety Derrick Wells had his lacerated knee restitched, and might be able to practice later in the week. ... Receiver MarQueis Gray did not practice Tuesday because of his sprained left knee and ankle, but he is likely to be available against Purdue. ... And defensive tackle Roland Johnson has recovered from a leg injury and should play.