MINNEAPOLIS — With its win Saturday over Illinois, the University of Minnesota football team became bowl eligible for the first time since 2009 — and some tears flowed in the locker room after the game as a result.
Minnesota’s sixth win of the season was a big step for a struggling football program that had gone 3-9 in each of the past two seasons. Becoming bowl eligible was certainly a reason for celebration for the Gophers.
“It was crazy. People jumping around, shouting,” Minnesota senior cornerback Michael Carter said. “It got emotional, too. Some seniors crying — including me, I was probably one of them.”
The Gophers’ goal at the beginning of the season was to play in a bowl game. After starting the year a perfect 4-0 in nonconference play, a bowl game seemed inevitable. But it took until Minnesota’s 10th game of the season to finally nab that elusive sixth win.
Gophers coach Jerry Kill has turned Minnesota’s program from a three-win team last year to a team that will play in December or January. He led a similar turnaround at Northern Illinois, taking a team that was 2-10 in 2007 and leading the Huskies to three straight bowl games from 2008-10 before accepting the Minnesota job.
“It’s hard to win games. It’s hard to win on the road,” Kill said of the Illinois victory. “I let them enjoy it. They were excited. I probably said less in the locker room than I said all year. I was happy. It’s all about the kids, anyway. At the end of the day, you just want to see them feel good for all the things they’ve put into it.”
Yet while Minnesota’s players took a moment to celebrate becoming bowl eligible, Kill and his staff didn’t spend much time relishing the win. They know that the Gophers still have two more regular-season games to worry about, including this Saturday at Nebraska. “They felt good about it, but as a coach, we’re … trying to figure out what we’re doing at center and we’re going to Lincoln, Neb. You’re already working ahead,” Kill said. “That’s the tough thing about coaching. You don’t get a chance to sit back and (say), ‘Boy, this is great.’ Because we have two games left. We’ve got to keep getting better.”
Most of the current Gophers have not yet played in a bowl game. Only the seniors who were around for the 2009 Insight Bowl against Iowa State have had postseason experience. Now, the chance to once again play in a bowl game means the seniors’ careers at Minnesota have come full circle.
“It feels great,” Carter said. “It was a long route, but we’re finally there. Senior year, it feels great going out bowl eligible.”
Piecing together an offensive line: Due to injuries, the Gophers have had just one offensive lineman start every game at the same position this year. That’s Josh Campion, who has made nine starts at right tackle. The other four spots on the line have been constantly in flux as Kill and offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover have tried to patch together an offensive line with healthy players.
The Gophers are especially thin at center, as Zach Mottla is out for the year with a broken leg suffered Saturday against Illinois. Backup center Jon Christenson is questionable for Saturday’s game with a high ankle sprain. That means redshirt sophomore Zac Epping is the team’s only healthy center entering the team’s matchup with Nebraska. Kill said Minnesota will give linemen Ed Olson and Tommy Olson snaps at center in practice this week just to have a backup plan in case Christenson can’t suit up.
Epping has started four games at center this year but started the last three games at left guard. He also played right guard in Minnesota’s first two games of the year. When Christenson went down against Illinois, Epping moved over to center.
“I’m holding up,” Epping said. “It’s unfortunate, what happened to Mottla. Hopefully, he’ll have a solid recovery. … As an O-line, we’re all pretty close together, so it’s pretty easy when somebody goes down. Somebody just has to step up and be positive.”
For freshman quarterback Philip Nelson, the constant changes at center haven’t made his transition to the college game any easier. Nelson took over at quarterback in Minnesota’s game against Wisconsin. Now, four games into his college career, Nelson has taken snaps from three different centers.
“From a center’s standpoint, it’s a little different taking snaps from under center or in the (shotgun) because they’re all different,” Nelson said. “In practice every single day, we rotate centers so we’ve got a feel for each one of them. It shouldn’t be too much different from a center standpoint.”