Gophers football coach Tracy Claeys and former Gophers football coach Glen Mason go back to 1988, when Claeys worked as a student assistant under Mason and Mason’s linebackers coach, Bob Fello, at Kansas.

Claeys spent three years at Kansas before transferring and graduating from Kansas State. He said one of the things he watched Mason do is something he’s trying to do with the Gophers: continue turning a losing program into a winner.

“I got to be around all the time and they weren’t very successful before [Mason] got there, and so part of this rebuilding thing was seeing what he did at the University of Kansas to take them to the [1992 Aloha] Bowl,” Claeys said. “He’s an awfully good football coach, believes in the fundamentals of football, and his kids played well for him on Saturday.”

Mason inherited a Kansas team in 1988 that had gone 0-13-1 in the Big Eight its previous two seasons. By 1991, Kansas had a winning record, and the 1992 Aloha Bowl was the Jayhawks’ first bowl game in more than a decade. In 1995 they finished 10-2, tied for second in the Big Eight and defeated UCLA 51-30 in the Aloha Bowl to rank No. 9 in the final Associated Press poll.

Mason agreed to be head coach at Georgia at that time, but had a change of heart and stayed at Kansas one more year. He came to Minnesota in 1997, and it was a big mistake when he was fired here after the 2006 season.

What Claeys learned from Mason is something he and Jerry Kill, who retired as Gophers coach on Oct. 28 because of health issues, have tried to copy with the programs they’ve turned around.

Mason recalled how Claeys made an impression on him.

“He wanted to come in, and obviously he was very interested in coaching,” Mason said. “But he wanted to work as a student assistant, not as a graduate assistant, but an undergraduate student assistant for free and just hang around and learn football and do any duties that were assigned to him. You’d have a bunch of guys like that, but I’d say the best thing I could say is he made a very positive impression on me.

“You always have a lot of student assistants and unfortunately a couple of years later, you lose track of them, but I was able to follow his career. I was probably most impressed when I found out he was a defensive coordinator at Northern Illinois and they did a fine job down there with Jerry Kill.”

Claeys said the style of football Mason preached is something he still believes in.

“Coach has always had a very physical, tough football team, and so I learned an awful lot about college football by being with him at Kansas,” Claeys said.

Illinois can throw

While Illinois might rank last in the Big Ten in scoring offense at only 16.3 points per game in conference play, they are 10th in the league in yards per game with 350.2, right behind the Gophers (359.3). The Illini’s passing offense is ranked sixth in the Big Ten at 238.3 yards per game. Claeys said the Gophers secondary will have a tough task Saturday.

“It’s going to be a challenge with all the different formations and shifts that they do, and our kids in the secondary are going to have to do a great job of communicating in order to get them stopped,” he said. “We struggled in the first half last year against them, and we need to be able to make those adjustments sooner rather than waiting until halftime.”

Claeys later reported that running back Rodney Smith would be probable to play Saturday. Smith, the Gophers’ leading rusher with 550 yards, missed last week’s game at Iowa because of an ankle injury.

Zimmer on focusing

Vikings coach Mike Zimmer was asked how important it’s been to keep the players grounded and make sure they’re not getting caught up in the team’s five-game winning streak.

“I don’t really think that they have been not grounded as we’ve continued to win,” Zimmer said. “They seem to be focused every week. It’s just kind of business as usual. We just keep going, doing what we do and I remind them of things we have to get better at each day, remind them — like I told the team — we’re just trying to go one day, one week, one game. How can we get better today and how can we get better this week? And hopefully we’re better than whoever we’re playing on Sunday.”

Rushing Rodgers

The Green Bay Packers have allowed 22 sacks this season, but the troubling development for them is they have allowed 11 of those during their recent three-game losing streak. That has left quarterback Aaron Rodgers dealing with a shoulder injury, and coach Mike McCarthy said Wednesday that Rodgers is “banged up.”

The Vikings rank 12th in the NFL in QB hits with 54, and that could give them a real shot to bother Rodgers on Sunday. The temperature is expected to dip into the low 30s by game time.

The Vikings haven’t defeated the Packers since Dec. 30, 2012, at the Metrodome, and this is their best chance since then to get a victory and take a two-game lead in the NFC North with six regular-season games left.

Jottings

• If you want an indication of how drastically the thinking about the Vikings’ Super Bowl chances has changed during their 7-2 start, consider this: The Vikings opened the season with 50-1 odds to win the Super Bowl, according to gambling website Bovada, which ranked 17th in the NFL. Now they are 12-1, trailing only New England, Arizona, Carolina and Cincinnati and tied with Green Bay.

• The University of Minnesota has raised close to $90 million toward the construction of athletic facilities. Philanthropy reached new heights at the school over the past year in other fundraising, with donors committing a record-breaking $351 million to the university, surpassing the previous record by $62 million.

• Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns is one of eight players in the past 30 years — and the second since the 1997-1998 season — to being his NBA career by recording at least 15 points and 10 rebounds per game through his first 10 games.

• The Gophers baseball team opens its 2016 season Feb. 19 against Utah in Surprise, Ariz., the spring training home of the world champion Kansas City Royals. … Gophers sophomore lefthander Lucas Gilbreath was offered a spot with Hyannis of the prestigious Cape Cod League for 2016. Junior pitcher/outfielder Matt Fiedler of Eagan also has an opportunity with Wareham of the Cape Cod League. The Gophers expect to place upward of 20 other players in the Northwoods League in 2016. … Twenty-one of the Gophers baseball team’s 32 players are from Minnesota.

 

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on 830-AM at 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. shartman@startribune.com