Gophers notebook: Bye week comes at critical time

MINNEAPOLIS — All teams in the Big Ten are
experiencing something different on the schedule this season: two bye weeks.

For Minnesota, the second of its two open dates on the
schedule happens to be this coming Saturday. In the eyes of Gophers head coach
Jerry Kill, the timing is perfect after Minnesota’s 24-10 win over Penn State.

“I think the most important thing we do is get healthy.
I think this time of year, that’s critical for all teams is they’ve got to stay
healthy (if you) expect to win,” Kill said Tuesday on the Big Ten coaches
teleconference. “The off week’s come at a good time. A week from Saturday,
we’ve got to play Wisconsin, so we need all the preparation we can get because
they’re a great football team.”

The Gophers have several players banged up this week,
including a few who played in Saturday’s win. Quarterback Philip Nelson
continues to deal with a hip pointer, while wide receiver Derrick Engel
suffered an ankle injury two games ago and played through it Saturday while
catching three passes for 40 yards.

Kill added that defensive back Antonio Johnson was banged
up, and right guard Caleb Bak did not play Saturday due to a concussion.
Minnesota has time to rest up before next Saturday’s game against Wisconsin.
After that, the Gophers close out the regular season with a road game at
Michigan State, during which they’ll need their full complement of players.

“Really, we need a lot of guys to heal up. Caleb Bak,
that’s the thing when you’re dealing with a concussion. You just have to see
through the week. The off week certainly helps that,” Kill said. “The
off week couldn’t come at a better time for us because I think physically, the
Big Ten takes its toll on you. Some places we have a little bit of depth, and
others we don’t. This will be a real critical time for us, this week getting
our legs back underneath us because we’re going to play two physical football
teams.”

Nelson earns praise: While he didn’t put up the same
type of numbers as he did against Indiana, Nelson was still effective in Saturday’s
win against the Nittany Lions. The sophomore from Mankato threw for 186 yards
and a touchdown on 15-of-24 passing and also ran for 40 yards and a score.

The confidence of the entire Gophers team has continued to
grow during their current four-game winning streak, and that certainly includes
Nelson.

“Philip has gotten better each week,” Kill said.
“I think our quarterback coach, Jim Zebrowski, has done a great job with
him. …  I think Philip is learning how to go to secondary receivers and be
patient. He’s throwing the ball really well. It was tremendously windy on
Saturday and he threw a very good ball in the wind. I just think he’s gaining
confidence.”

Kill added that Nelson’s increased confidence in himself has
led to Minnesota offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover having more confidence
in his quarterback. As a result, the Gophers have added new wrinkles to the
offense over the last few weeks.

On the same token, Minnesota’s running game has also reaped
the benefits of Nelson’s improved play. Running back David Cobb topped 100
yards rushing again Saturday, the fourth game in a row he reached that mark.

“That certainly helps the run game, because I think the
last few games we’ve thrown the ball to help us with the run game because of
people loading the box so much,” Kill said.

Leadership a group effort: Kill was asked Tuesday if
there were certain players who have helped keep the rest of the team focused
during the Gophers’ newfound success. After all, Minnesota hadn’t won four
straight Big Ten games in season since 1973 before beating Penn State on
Saturday.

While Kill listed several names — linebacker Aaron Hill,
offensive lineman Josh Campion, defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman and defensive
back Brock Vereen — he conceded that the entire roster has stepped up in the
leadership department.

“It’s really been — it’s hard to describe — from the
coaching staff to the players, it’s been a great group effort,” Kill said.
“I just think everybody’s been good listeners to the coaches. From there,
I think there’s a trust factor there. It’s really been truly a group effort.
It’s been fun to see to this point.”

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