In my opinion, the fact that Jeff Horton and his fine staff have found a way to beat two of the better teams in the Big Ten -- Illinois and Iowa -- on successive weeks has changed the picture of hiring a new Gophers football coach.

I want the best for the University of Minnesota football program. I'm willing to listen to the reasons Joel Maturi has for not giving Horton a chance. But after checking with some coaches, I am convinced that Maturi, Dave Mona and the people who are going to decide on the new coach will have a hard time finding a better coach and a better staff and a better situation for the school than hiring Horton and his staff for at least two years for a lot less money.

Why would somebody like Brady Hoke of San Diego State (which beat UNLV 48-14 on Saturday to improve to 8-4), who did a good job at Ball State and has had one winning season at his new school, be better than Horton, who knows the personnel here and is an experienced Big Ten coach? And players such as outgoing quarterback Adam Weber and future quarterback MarQueis Gray have come out in favor of Horton being hired. They love and respect the man and want to keep on playing for the same staff. A lack of consistency has been one reason the program has struggled.

Hard to get right coach Among the coaches that I have talked to, one prominent candidate has told me the reasons he wouldn't consider the Gophers job are that, first, he's unfamiliar with new university President Eric Kaler; and second, he doesn't know how long Maturi will be on board as athletic director.

That's a big concern when it comes to this coaching job. And Maturi has only two years remaining on his contract and has not indicated whether he wants to continue after that.

Furthermore, this coaching candidate added that he doesn't consider the Gophers to be a good job and with few openings this year he would delay moving for another year. Yes, a coach looks at the Gophers job and sees that seven coaches have been fired since the 1970s and sees that it's been 43 years since the Gophers won a Big Ten title.

There are more reasons for hiring Horton and his staff, who would be paid less than a new coach would demand. In addition, keeping the current staff would allow for continuity both for the current players and for incoming and future recruits.

As it turned out, the hiring of Tim Brewster turned out to be a mistake if you judge him by his record. At the time Brewster was hired, Texas Christian's Gary Patterson and then-Florida assistant Charlie Strong, now the coach at Louisville, were available.

What assurances do we have that the new coach will do better than Brewster?

You know what you are getting in Horton, who has had previous head coaching experience at Nevada and UNLV and has had success as an assistant at other schools, including Wisconsin.

And if you offer as an excuse that the fans won't buy tickets to see a Horton-coached team, what makes you think that they will buy tickets for the new coach after about 25 percent of the crowd left TCF Bank Stadium at halftime Saturday with Gophers on their way to the biggest upset in years?

Maturi wouldn't address the coaching situation after the Iowa victory. I would be surprised if he hired Horton; in fact, I would not be surprised if he announced today that Horton is not a candidate for the job. But I believe by not hiring Horton, he is really putting himself on the spot.

Michigan State helped Horton said he felt the team got some momentum toward winning the final two games by the way they shut down Michigan State in the second half of that loss.

"You hope you have some mojo coming off the Illinois win and we had the bye and we had great practices those three days and came back this week," Horton said.

No doubt the Gophers surprised Iowa with the recovery of an onside kick after they scored first.

"We knew if they had taken the ball to start the game we were starting with an onside kick. Obviously we took the ball [after winning the coin toss], but then we said after our first points, whether a touchdown or a field goal, we were going to go for the onside kick. We really felt we had a good opportunity there," Horton said.

All season long, the Gophers have not protected the ball well, and they almost lost the game when DeLeon Eskridge fumbled late in the game. But they did better in that department against Iowa.

"Yeah, we were moving the ball good, but we did a great job of protecting the ball today," Horton said. "They were number two in the nation coming in and we were 131st or something like that, so any kind of turnover was at a premium."

The Gophers wound up rushing the ball 46 times for 216 yards against one of the top defenses in the country.

"We wanted to keep them off the field because I think they've got some good players on offense," Horton said.

Need to protect ball The Vikings have lost nine road games in a row going into Sunday's game with the Redskins, and new coach Leslie Frazier said failure to protect the football on the road has been a big reason .

"A number of different factors [for the losses], but the number one reason, when I take a look at it, is our ability to protect the football and then take the football away," Frazier said. "We haven't been very good at doing that on the road and that's where we've got to be right at on Sunday. We've got to take the ball away and we've got to protect the football on offense and come up with a score on special teams or make sure that they're not getting good field position on the road."

One other problem all year has been the play of the young cornerbacks.

"If we're going to get this turned around we've got to be able to help our young corners out, and we've got some ideas that we're going to try this week and hopefully they'll work," Frazier said.

Frazier believes that wide receiver Sidney Rice, playing only his second game of the year after being sidelined by a hip injury, will be a big factor at Washington.

"He got his first action a week ago, so you'd hope that he'll be even better this week," Frazier said. "But we're counting on him. He's a great player, and I'm just looking forward to see how he plays this Sunday."

And does he expect anything different from quarterback Brett Favre?

"We're not changing the scheme or anything, we just want him to be able to play within the scheme," Frazier said. "We trust Brett and he'll play within the scheme. He'll do the things that are necessary to help us to win."

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on WCCO AM-830 at 6:40, 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. •