Without their coach and without anything resembling an effective offense, the Gophers limped toward the postseason on Saturday, secure in the knowledge that Le'Veon Bell can't hurt them there.
Bell roared into the Big Ten rushing lead with 266 yards, or almost three times as many yards as Minnesota's entire offense produced against a team bent on reaching a bowl game of its own, and Michigan State handed the Gophers a 26-10 loss that raises a host of new questions.
Chief among them: How's Jerry Kill?
The Gophers coach suffered an epileptic seizure in the locker room at halftime, after players had already taken the field, and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys coached the second half from the press box. Kill is recovering normally from the seizure, athletic director Norwood Teague said afterward, and will not require hospitalization. He's expected back at work on Monday, Teague said.
"I know this will bring up questions about him moving forward, but we have 100 percent confidence in Jerry," Teague said. "We'll evaluate, at the end of the year, his health, and that mainly is for him. ... You don't want to downplay it, but you get to the point where you realize it's something he has to deal with at times. It's easy to deal with in a lot of ways."
Kill, who has endured occasional seizures for two decades, has twice before been stricken with epileptic seizures on a game day. Last year, Kill collapsed on the TCF Bank Stadium sidelines late in the fourth quarter of a 28-21 loss to New Mexico State, and last month, Kill was stricken about an hour after Minnesota's 21-13 loss to Northwestern. In both cases, Kill rejoined the team after short hospital stays.
"His vitals are fine. He's healthy as a horse, as they say," except for the seizures, Teague said. The public perception of his affliction "doesn't really concern me that much," the athletic director added. "I've lived with these guys every day. ... At first blush, yeah, [it's a problem], but once you start really thinking about it, we move forward and we work, he works -- it doesn't bother me at all."
Their coach will be fine, everyone said afterward, but can the same be said about the Gophers offense, which was held to a season-low 96 total yards? Or their rushing defense, which allowed Bell to rush for more than 70 yards in three of the four quarters?
And most curious of all, will the Meineke Car Care Bowl prefer a 6-6 Purdue team that has won three straight games, or a 6-6 Minnesota team that beat the Boilermakers but has lost two straight games without showing a glimmer of offense? A bump from the Big Ten's sixth bowl team to seventh would cost the Gophers their prime-time exposure in Houston, and send them to a New Year's morning date in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
The Gophers had hopes of posting their first winning regular-season record since 2009, but Michigan State's need for a victory in order to reach bowl eligibility proved a more effective motivation. Junior quarterback Andrew Maxwell had little luck passing against Minnesota's defense, completing 13 of 29 passes for 143 yards, with two interceptions and a touchdown, and his failures caused several Spartan drives to stall, leaving it to kicker Dan Conroy to bank points three at a time.
But who needs to throw the ball when you have a yardage machine like Bell? The junior tailback entered the game in second place, 35 yards behind Wisconsin's Montee Ball, for the Big Ten rushing lead, but bulldozed his way to the top by wearing out Gophers defenders -- or simply carrying them with him. Bell's longest run of the day was a 40-yard romp in which he carried safety Derrick Wells on his back until a second tackler arrived.
Minnesota, by contrast, had no running game -- Donnell Kirkwood's 19 yards led the team, and the Gophers had a pitiful 4 total yards as a unit -- and no passing game, either. All three active quarterbacks got a chance, and they combined to go 13-for-30 for 92 total yards and four interceptions. Starter Philip Nelson threw three of the picks, and completed just 10 of 23 passes in leading an offense that never penetrated Michigan State's red zone, much less the end zone.
The Gophers' lone touchdown was provided by the defense. Late in the first quarter, junior linebacker Aaron Hill grabbed a Maxwell pass at the Michigan State 33 and picked his way down the sideline for a touchdown, the only highlight of a season finale that even outgoing Gophers seniors won't want to remember.