MINNEAPOLIS — A trailer home in Pittsburg, Kan., kept operational on a $250 monthly budget.
This is where Jerry Kill started out, grinding the grist as Pittsburg State’s defensive coordinator in the late 1980s. When he hired Tracy Claeys in 1995 to oversee Saginaw Valley State’s defensive line, Claeys was bringing in $600 every four weeks or so.
Minnesota’s head coach and defensive guru, attached at the hip since those days in University Center, Mich., are no strangers to meager beginnings. So with the Gophers’ week-by-week ascension to local, Big Ten and national respect — including Saturday’s 24-10 win over Penn State — comes a passionate appreciation for the obstacles they’ve eclipsed.
Not for their own sake, but for that of the players that bull-rushed the Penn State sideline Saturday afternoon and celebrated a victory so raucously they snapped the Governors’ Victory Bell off its stand. And for those who endured 3-9 and 6-7 campaigns in Kill’s first two years here, setting what he believes was the foundation for the program’s best season in at least a decade.
“Belief,” was the word Kill used throughout his postgame press conference.
“We’ve been in the profession for a long time,” Kill said after his team out-manned and outlasted a second traditional conference power in three weeks. “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 so forth. And I’m also happy for the kids that played here our first two years, because they’re just as big a part of it as anybody. They had to go through a lot of tough things.”
This season, it’s been calls for their head coach’s job on account of a condition that confined him to the press box for a fourth straight game. Back-to-back tough losses against Michigan and Iowa projected 2013 as yet another middling, bowl-game-or-bust campaign that’s been the status quo here for decades.
Then came a bye week. Next, a gritty win against a shorthanded Northwestern team. Seven days later, a shocker over Nebraska, followed by a survival story at Indiana.
The Gophers’ first four-game, single-season Big Ten win streak since 1973 culminated Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium in a triumph that had Kill dancing in the locker room, Devon Wright doing cartwheels and a broken traveling trophy pieced back together long enough for an all-smiles-and-perspiration team photo. With each passing week — and win — since the 42-13 Michigan meltdown, Kill said, his team’s resolve has increased in volume.
It boiled over Saturday as Minnesota (8-2, 3-2 Big Ten) surpassed its highest victory total since 2003 and beat the Nittany Lions (5-4, 2-3) for the first time since 2004.
“We knew how good we were,” said tight end Maxx Williams, who caught a pair of 24-yard passes that resulted in a fourth-down conversion and a late second-quarter touchdown. “It just took that little time to start clicking as a team together and become closer together. I think once we got that down, we knew how good we could be and how good we can be. I think just building off each win helps us each week, knowing ‘Hey, we brought it to them, and we can do it again this week.'”
That belief was on vivid display for 48,123 spectators to behold.
Kill and offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover trusted a banged-up Philip Nelson enough to throw on two first-half fourth-down tries — both successful and leading to touchdowns — and attempt 24 passes on a blustery, gray day in the Twin Cities. Playing with a hip pointer, Nelson completed 15 of them for 186 yards and the touchdown to Williams that accounted for the game’s final points with 17 seconds remaining in the first half.
Limegrover mixed in Nelson roll-outs and drop-backs with 27 David Cobb carries, one of them a 6-yard score with 3:08 to go in the first quarter. Nelson engineered back-to-back scoring drives of 15 plays, 96 yards and 13 plays, 70 yards in the first half, capping the second with a 6-yard touchdown scamper of his own.
“We felt if we could get the ball in open space, we had more speed than them,” said Nelson, who played every snap despite nursing a hip pointer. “If we could get them to take a wrong step or two, we knew that we could get some matchups inside, and even on the outside, we feel like our receivers had an advantage of winning some routes.”
A flexible-yet-stingy defense believed in itself in the second half, twice stopping the Big Ten’s second-best passing offense in the red zone during the fourth quarter. After Penn State drove to the Gophers’ 16-yard line, Derrick Wells broke up Christian Hackenberg’s fourth-down toss toward Richy Anderson with 9 ½ minutes to go.
On their next drive, the Lions moved to the Minnesota 1 with about 7 minutes left. James Manuel pounced on a fumbled snap, and the Gophers never relinquished possession again.
Penn State churned out 353 yards of offense — 150 from the legs of running back Zach Zwinak, who scored his team’s only touchdown — but came up empty on seven of nine possessions.
“I think the biggest difference with this team is, in those situations, we can fight back,” safety Brock Vereen said. “In previous years, we might have been likely to roll over.”
With that rural Kansan matter-of-factness he and Kill are known for, Claeys added, “They’ll never change the rule that there’s no points till that ball crosses the goal line.”
They had some second-half help from punter Peter Mortell, who twice pinned the Lions inside their own 2.
After the Gophers offense gnawed the final 6:40 off the clock, their entire sideline flocked toward the Victory Bell, a token instituted when Penn State joined the league in 1993. Wright got there first, and center Tommy Olson reached into the melee and accidentally ripped the bell off its base.
But that wasn’t going to sully Minnesota’s fourth eight-win season since college football moved to 11-game campaigns early in the 1970s.
That should lend some perspective; for power Big Ten programs — Penn State, Ohio State, Nebraska, and so on — nine wins is a minimum expectation. These eight come in an era where the Big Ten, by and large, is struggling to keep pace with the Pac-12, Big 12 and SEC.
But this is Minnesota, and if ever there was a time to make a move, it’s now. Kill knew it coming into the season, but even he wasn’t sure what the ceiling was for his green roster in Year 3.
“I didn’t know if we could move quite this quick, but I think that’s a credit to our staff and our players,” said Kill, who’s taken a pseudo-backseat to better focus on his epilepsy treatment while Claeys directs traffic on the sidelines. “On the inside — it’s sometimes hard to see on the outside — we knew we were getting better.
“The biggest thing we needed to do to get our kids to believe that they were good football players and believe in themselves. I think each week, the belief becomes better, and that’s what it’s all about.”
Now, heading into another bye before hosting border rival Wisconsin then traveling to current Legends Division leader Michigan State, the Gophers are in the national rankings conversation, technically in the conference championship discussion and could be in line for a New Year’s Day bowl.
“I think the biggest thing for our team is we’re having fun now,” said Cobb, who had his fourth straight 100-plus-yard rushing day. “Before, it was more of ‘it’s a job.’ You’re coming to work and kind of didn’t know if you’re gonna win or not. But now, we expect to win.”
Minnesota’s football team — the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision one — is 8-2. Believe it.