Gophers football team seeks something to build on

So far, that signature victory has eluded coach Jerry Kill.

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A big upset in the Big Ten would go wonders for the third-year Gophers coach and his program.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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For Gophers fans, it was only another loss, another reminder that Tim Brewster probably wasn’t long for the program. For Northern Illinois, and then-coach Jerry Kill, it was the kind of game he’s searching for now at Minnesota — a signature victory.

In 2010, Northern Illinois arrived at TCF Bank Stadium as four-point underdogs, with a 1-2 record. But the Huskies basically overpowered the Gophers in a 34-23 victory, launching a run of sustained success.

Since that game, Northern Illinois has gone 31-6.

“We were definitely hitting our stride [against Minnesota],” said Trevor Olson, a current Gophers graduate assistant coach who was an offensive lineman on that Northern Illinois team. “Everything seemed to click there and kept on going.”

Now the Gophers are hoping something similar clicks for them. In two seasons under Kill, they’ve gone 3-9 and 6-7 (2-6 in the Big Ten each season), but they haven’t had one of those victories that announces they’re turning a corner.

An example came in 1999, when the Gophers went to Penn State and defeated the No. 2-ranked Nittany Lions 24-23 in Glen Mason’s third season. Despite painful near-misses in years to come, Mason’s teams produced their share of pleasant surprises beyond only that Penn State game.

The closest the Gophers have come under Kill came in 2011, when they went to Iowa as 15-point underdogs and came away with a 22-21 victory. It was a satisfying victory that helped legitimize Kill’s staff for Gophers fans. But Minnesota also had defeated a slumping Iowa program in their 2010 season finale under interim coach Jeff Horton, so it wasn’t a huge surprise.

“I think if you go back to all the places I’ve been, even back in Division II, I can point back to a game that it looked like we turned the corner,” Kill said.

At Southern Illinois, Kill’s first team went 1-10 in 2001. The next year, the Salukis faced a Western Illinois team that had defeated them 18 consecutive times and was ranked No. 8 in Division I-AA. But redshirt freshman quarterback Joel Sambursky led the Salukis on an 80-yard touchdown drive, giving them a 54-52 victory.

“We still went 4-8 that year, but it did give us confidence going into the offseason,” said Jeff Jones, a defensive lineman on that Salukis team who now works as a Gophers assistant recruiting coordinator. “We knew that we were capable of going worst-to-first the next year.”

Indeed, Southern Illinois went 10-2, 10-2 and 9-4 the next three seasons, and Jones was part of three consecutive conference titles under Kill.

Instead of singling out the Western Illinois game, Jones points to the changed mind-set among the players that previous offseason.

“As a team, we said hey, we’re tired of losing,” Jones said. “Everyone at Southern Illinois doubted us. Even my professors doubted us, but as a team, as players, we were ready to change the culture.”

Kill said he believes the Gophers turned a corner in December in the Meineke Car Care Bowl against Texas Tech, despite blowing a late lead in a 34-31 defeat. The Gophers had entered as 13-point underdogs and controlled the line of scrimmage offensively for much of the game.

“I don’t know if you can say you get a signature loss, but our kids found out they can play physical football,” Kill said. “I think that helped us going into the offseason, but I think we have to learn how to win in the Big Ten.

“We had a chance to close the game out and didn’t do it. I think it’s a mind-set. When you win a game you’re not supposed to, it just does something for your mind-set.”

Looking at this year’s schedule, Minnesota will have more chances. Nebraska, Penn State and Wisconsin come to TCF Bank Stadium, and the Gophers could dream of stunning Michigan at the Big House on Oct. 5.

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