Confidence a clear sign of progress at Minnesota

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) The signs of progress at Minnesota are plentiful.

The 22nd-ranked Gophers have cracked The Associated Press poll for the first time in more than six years. They have posted consecutive eight-win seasons for the first time since 2002 and 2003, and they have a chance to go to the Big Ten championship game.

The way the players have talked about their performance, their expectations and their place among the conference’s best, though, might be the best measure of how far this program has come.

Their confidence is clear.

”There’s been a lot of defining moments,” coach Jerry Kill said.

They started with the win against Nebraska at home last year, part of a four-game conference winning streak. Then there was the victory at Michigan this season that brought back the Little Brown Jug. The comeback against Northwestern last month on an afternoon when the Gophers weren’t at their best was important, too. The 37-point win over Iowa to start the November to remember was quite the statement. Hanging around with mighty Ohio State in a one-touchdown loss was the next step.

Last week, they rallied from a 14-point deficit to beat the Huskers on their hallowed home field.

”We don’t panic,” Kill said.

The Gophers play rival Wisconsin on Saturday for the West Division title, an almost unfathomable opportunity for this team from the view of most people outside of it. But that steadiness and sturdiness that Kill and his long-trusted assistant coaches have instilled in the program have helped breed that belief within the locker room that these types of signature victories should come more and more and more to the point where they’re not signatures anymore.

Last year during the Big Ten championship game between Ohio State and Michigan State, safety Cedric Thompson said on Twitter that he promised the Gophers would be there in 2014. After losing to the Buckeyes on Nov. 15, linebacker DeVondre Campbell said they would see them again in three weeks.

Beat the Badgers, and they will.

”Our coaching staff, they did a great job of not allowing the mistakes that happened the previous year carry over into the next year,” cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun said. ”So before every season we would go back and look at things that weren’t so good last year and kind of put emphasis on those things that didn’t go so well. And I think we as a team, we rallied behind that. We really made sure those things didn’t happen and guys really took pride in doing their job.”

The status of star running back David Cobb is a concern for Saturday. Kill said Cobb is ”very questionable” for the game because of a pulled left hamstring.

”He’s been working hard, David has been. When he’s not in class, he’s been down there,” Kill said Tuesday, referring to the training room. ”And you know he’ll do everything he can to be ready. But that’s a difficult injury to deal with.”

If Cobb doesn’t play or is limited in his carries, senior Donnell Kirkwood likely will see more action, along with freshman Berkley Edwards if he’s cleared from his concussion. Kirkwood was the featured runner two years ago until Cobb took the job and, well, ran with it last fall. Kirkwood, who came through with some clutch gains down the stretch at Nebraska last week, said he has enjoyed watching Cobb flourish into one of the best tailbacks in the country.

Getting over the reduced role ”took probably a game or two,” Kirkwood said. He added of Cobb: ”He earned his spot, and he earned his keep where he’s at.”

So have the Gophers.

The conference title game is a tantalizing prize, but the Badgers are a daunting opponent.

”It’s just exciting to look ahead at things like that, but we can’t do that,” wide receiver K.J. Maye said. ”We know we have to get past this game first.”