Jeff Horton has probably endured hundreds of flight delays during his decades as a football coach. This was probably the first one he ever enjoyed.
Horton and the 2010 Gophers crammed into a too-small conference room at the Champaign, Ill., airport two Novembers ago, their traveling victory party detoured but hardly deterred by a snowstorm in Minneapolis. As they waited three hours for clearance to fly home, they became closer, Horton said, than any football team he has seen.
"We felt like we were the only people in the world who gave us any chance to win," Horton said of those woebegone Gophers, a team that lost nine games in a row and appeared headed toward a historic level of futility before somehow winning its final two games.
He still texts players from that squad, offering encouragement and congratulations, reliving a bizarre season. "It was such a great celebration," he said. "Because of the circumstances, it was one of the most emotional wins I've ever been a part of."
Those circumstances included the firing of coach Tim Brewster after the Gophers fell to 1-6 on the season, and a largely negative atmosphere surrounding the program. Horton was asked to take over, but he and the rest of Brewster's staff knew they would be let go, too -- once they rode out a schedule that handed them Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan State in successive weeks.
After absorbing their designated beatings in those games, the Gophers traveled to Illinois' Memorial Stadium for a game few thought would be any different. Two years later, Horton said, he still has that game on TiVo, and has watched it again more than once.
"I love that game because of the type of kids we had. Their resolve, their ability to not believe what people were saying," said Horton, now the assistant head coach at San Diego State.
The Gophers made their usual complement of errors, yet stayed close most of the way, but when Illinois tailback Mikel Leshoure, now with the Detroit Lions, romped 55 yards for a touchdown with little more than eight minutes to play, the Gophers trailed by 10. "You could feel on the sideline, the team was refusing to give up," Horton said.
Troy Stoudermire returned the kickoff 90 yards to the 4, and the Gophers cut the lead; then the defense, which had given up four second-half touchdowns, suddenly stiffened. And Adam Weber, the object of so much criticism during the season, drove the Gophers down the field, with DeLeon Eskridge bulldozing into the end zone from 2 yards out with 16 seconds left, capping a 38-34 upset.
And it set off quite a celebration. Coaches had tears in their eyes, and the team sang and danced in the locker room.
"You'd have thought we won the Rose Bowl," Horton said. It might seem silly for a 2-9 team to dump Gatorade on the coach, as the Gophers did to Horton, or treasure a positive moment in a horrible year. But "you remember those for a long time. That season was a big burden on those kids, and they deserved that," he said.
The Gophers return to Illinois for the first time since that weekend, and Horton said he hopes to see a reprise. "I can't think anything better than for Coach [Jerry] Kill to take that team back down there and get bowl-eligible," Horton said. "They could celebrate again."
Receivers Derrick Engel and A.J. Barker are still bothered by ankle injuries, Kill said, and will not play Saturday. Left tackle Ed Olson is moving better after missing three weeks with an ankle injury of his own, but if he plays, Kill said, he would be limited to 10-15 snaps.
Safety Derrick Wells is likely to play, defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said, though he is still hampered by a cut on his thigh. Fellow safety Cedric Thompson is listed as "questionable."