While many might be surprised at the 8-2 record the Gophers have after beating Penn State 24-10 on Saturday, Jerry Kill and his coaching staff believed this football team could surprise everybody with a great improvement from last year, especially after it had a great performance in a 34-31 loss against Texas Tech in the bowl game last year.
When I relayed that confidence to fellow media friends, they laughed at me.
And while not predicting the Gophers would win four consecutive conference games, the coaching staff believed it was possible for it to happen.
“I think together as a staff we knew we had a very young team, I didn’t know if we could move quite this quick, but I think that’s a credit to our staff and our players,” Kill said. “On the inside, it’s kind of hard to see on the outside; we knew we were getting better. So I always say it’s a lot better to be positive than negative, and the biggest thing we need to do to get our kids to believe they’re good football players and believe in themselves. I think each week the belief becomes better and that’s what it’s all about.”
While the team rushed for 195 yards and continued to be excellent in that respect, the surprise was that the Gophers passed for 186 yards on a windy day, with Philip Nelson completing 15 of 24 passes for one touchdown. He was sacked only one time, indicating the good protection he got.
In each game, there seems to be a new wide receiver stepping up and making receptions in crucial situations — and that’s with Jamel Harbison and Andre McDonald, who were considered to be two of the best receivers on the squad, not seeing action.
“We’re young at that position and we’re still learning but we have some guys who can make some plays,” Kill said. “I’m proud of Derrick [Engel] because he had a pretty good ankle sprain last week and he worked hard to get ready to play today, and that’s a credit to him. Coach [Pat] Poore has been a head football coach, Coach Poore has been in the business as long as coach and I have been. He’s a good football coach and he’s done a great job of developing those kids.”
Kill was asked about what has changed the most about this team since it started 0-2 in Big Ten play.
“All of them just believing they can win and believing in each other,” he said. “I think that’s the biggest thing. Sometimes through adversity sometimes that’s good and sometimes that’s not so good, but our coaching staff and players hung in there. When I go into practice right now, walk in there, and those kids, I don’t know why or when, but they’ve stepped it up. We don’t have to yell and scream. They go to work. Practice has been the same about every week.”
What’s it like to see that belief grow?
“Well again I think that we’ve been in the profession for a long time and we started out coach [Tracy Claeys] was making $600 and I hired him, when I started I was making $250,” Kill said. “We love kids and we love watching them grow and get better. It’s neat to see. I’m so happy for the kids, because they’ve been through a lot of adversity and I’m also happy for the kids that played here our first two years because they’re as big a part of it as anybody. They had to go through a lot of tough times. All of our letterwinners sweat and bled here. I’ve always said not one person, not 10 people are going to turn this program around. It’s a group of people. We appreciate it.”
Nelson comes up big
Nelson not only had a good day passing, but he also ran 12 times for 40 yards and a touchdown. Two of the biggest plays he made came on fourth-down calls to sustain touchdown drives.
The first was a fourth-and-2 play on the Nittany Lions 28-yard line in the first quarter. Nelson completed a 24-yard pass to Maxx Williams on that play, setting up a short touchdown run by David Cobb two plays later. That score gave the Gophers a 10-0 lead and capped a 15-play, 96-yard drive.
The next fourth-down decision came on fourth-and-8 at the Penn State 29 in the second quarter. Nelson completed an 11-yard pass to Donovahn Jones, and four plays later Nelson ended the drive with a 6-yard touchdown run.
“A lot of it has to do with play-calling and our coaches putting us in really good positions on fourth down,” Nelson said. “Situation [plays are] something that we work on in fall camp and stuff like that. We’ve seen a lot of different situations and our coaches do a good job of dialing up the right plays at the right time.”
Nelson also said that the team is aware of how big the next two games are: in two weeks with Wisconsin at home, and the season finale at Michigan State.
“What this team has done a great job of is taking it week-by-week and not trying to look too far ahead,” he said. “Right now I think we’re in a pretty good position. We’re what we thought we could be at the beginning of the year. There’s still another game ahead of us, a big one, and it’s just about getting prepared for that one.”