A late collapse cost the Gophers a bowl victory, but their coach found solace in looking forward.
HOUSTON - Say it fast enough, and "Jerry Kill" can sound like "Jekyll." But watch him on the sideline, and the Gophers coach is all Mr. Hyde.
Yet for all the raging and raving the Gophers coach did at the Meineke Car Care Bowl officiating crew Friday night, for as agonizing and pitiless the finish was when Minnesota's lead slipped away, Kill was phlegmatic in discussing the season-ending, 34-31 loss afterward. The impression was clear: Kill badly wanted to win -- but he considered the Gophers winners already.
"You have to understand, after looking at the number of bowl games we have been to at Minnesota, I know where we were when I took the job," Kill said moments after the Gophers were victimized by a last-minute Texas Tech rally. "Where we were a year ago and where we are now, there is no comparison. Coming here and having the opportunity to win, the way we played, there is no question that we are moving forward. ... Even though we didn't win, the game will certainly help us."
Kill's stoic view is that the loss was unfortunate, but merely a missed opportunity to pass another milestone. The real work of building a team that routinely wins postseason games goes on.
Longtime Gophers fans might not be so sure; they have seen collapses like this before. They have watched their team lose five consecutive bowl games now, the past four to Big 12 opponents, and their team has lost more games than it has won in six of the past seven years. A certain it's-always-something hopelessness, reinforced by the Red Raiders' 10-points-in-70-seconds comeback Friday, set in long ago.
But Kill has reasons for optimism, and they go beyond the rejuvenation of the Gophers offense and the gradual improvement of their defense. Healthy and well-prepared, the Gophers played arguably their best game of the year against capable opposition -- and the coming overhaul of their two-deep offers more hope.
Quarterback will be the focus once more, and the Gophers should benefit from the end to the three-man carousel that injuries forced upon them this year. After a valuable, if ultimately painful, night facing a veteran Texas Tech defense, Philip Nelson will return as the prohibitive favorite to run the offense.
"If we ever get in that situation again, we should be able to execute better," said the 19-year-old freshman, who threw a pair of touchdown passes, breaking his three-game streak without one, and ran for 26 yards. Nelson's confidence appeared to grow, and while he overthrew a few receivers and got unlucky on a bad bounce off Derrick Engel's hands that turned into the game-deciding interception, it was an encouraging night. Especially since he sounded intent on rewriting the finish.
"This game is going to put a huge chip on our shoulder," Nelson said. "Guys are already talking about getting into the weight room, getting better for next year."
Nelson will be challenged by Mitch Leidner, another freshman who quarterbacked the scout team this year, and incoming recruit Chris Streveler, a run-pass threat in the mold of some of Kill's great QBs at Northern Illinois. It's a frighteningly young corps, but offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said talent will matter more than experience.
"We've proved that if a freshman comes in and he's the best one, that man will play," Limegrover said. "[Leidner and Nelson] will have gone through two springs, two preseasons and a bowl season by the time we get to next year's opener. I'm excited. We're in good hands moving forward."
They would like to find a few more pass-catching hands, a glaring deficiency this year, though the return to health of Jamel Harbison and Marcus Jones should help. They will try to add a speed back to go with the power running game that Donnell Kirkwood and Rodrick Williams showed off in Houston. And the entire offensive line will return intact, and deeper than ever; no players will be lost to graduation, former Ohio State center Brian Bobek will be eligible, and redshirt freshmen Jonah Pirsig and Isaac Hayes will compete for playing time, too.
"It takes a few years to build a line," Limegrover said, "but once you do, it makes everything work better."
Defensively, the Gophers lose much more to graduation, including both starting cornerbacks, a pair of starting linebackers and their best pass-rushing lineman. But Minnesota showed its greater depth in the secondary against the Red Raiders, holding them scoreless for most of the second half. Defensive backs such as Briean Boddy, Jeremy Baltazar and Antonio Johnson appear ready to step in for Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire, and the Gophers already have received a commitment for next year from a highly rated junior-college middle linebacker, Damien Wilson of Ellisville, Miss.
"It's always tough to lose a class of seniors, and these guys are special because we asked them to get us pointed in the right direction," Kill said. "Whatever success we have ahead of us, they'll be a part of it. Now it's up to the young guys to keep it going that way."
Phil Miller • firstname.lastname@example.org
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