Excitement building around 4-0 Gophers

MINNEAPOLIS — Name one of the three undefeated Big Ten football teams.

Unless you live in the state of Minnesota, the Golden Gophers probably weren’t the first team that came to mind. But here they are, a perfect 4-0, along with Ohio State and Northwestern the only Big Ten teams to escape non-conference play unscathed.

For second-year Gophers coach Jerry Kill, it’s a sign he does indeed have Minnesota’s program heading in the right direction after winning just three games year ago. And of course, that season was marred by health concerns for Kill after he collapsed on the sideline having suffered a seizure during his first game at TCF Bank Stadium.

A year later, any questions about Kill’s health are met with a quick answer, as the coach reassures in his Kansas drawl that he’s doing fine these days. So is his team, which is preparing to take on 2-2 Iowa on Saturday in the Big Ten opener for both schools.

The Gophers’ fast start has created a buzz on the Minnesota campus that has been absent for years. Last Saturday night’s game against Syracuse was a sellout, and the energy in Dinkytown could be felt all day leading up to kickoff.

Fans are buying into what Kill is selling.

So are his players.

“We’re excited. We’ve got a lot of momentum,” Gophers senior tight end John Rabe said. “But if you would have asked us before camp started, we expected to be 4-0. We looked at our non-conference schedule and we said we should win all four of these games and we should get rolling when we get to Big Ten Conference play, and that’s what we’ve done.”

Indeed, Minnesota’s four non-conference games all appeared winnable on paper. The Gophers won all four, but it wasn’t always easy. They escaped Las Vegas with a 30-27 three-overtime win over UNLV in the season opener. After blowing out New Hampshire 44-7 in its home opener, Minnesota had its hands full in a 28-23 win over Western Michigan. And though it seemed the Gophers dominated last Saturday’s game against Syracuse from start to finish, the 17-10 final score doesn’t necessarily illustrate that.

Minnesota hasn’t always win pretty on the way to a 4-0 start, but the important thing is that the Gophers now have done something they haven’t since 2008. The four wins surpass their total from each of the past two seasons, and Kill now is just two wins from his first bowl game with Minnesota.

“I learned a lot about this about seven years ago. You take it one day at a time,” said Kill, referring to the rebuilding projects he headed at previous stops Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois.

When Kill took over as the coach at Southern Illinois in 2001, his Salukis finished 1-10 in his first season. One year later, they improved to 4-8. By 2003, SIU was 10-2 and had earned a spot in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. A similar transformation took place at Northern Illinois. The Huskies went to a bowl game in Kill’s first season in 2008, and their win totals improved from six to seven wins and then 10 wins in 2010.

After a 10-3 finish at Northern Illinois that year, Kill was hired to take on another rebuilding project, this time in the Big Ten. Though it’s still early, it appears as if Kill’s track record of improving a team in his second year has already taken hold with the Gophers.

Last year’s team lost to an FCS school in non-conference play and Minnesota lacked the athleticism and strength needed to compete with most of its opponents.

So far, that hasn’t been the case in 2012 as the Gophers have played a much more physical brand of football than they did a year ago and are undefeated as a result.

“We obviously see the results, but we can’t sleep on it and celebrate,” defensive lineman Ra’Shede Hageman said. “We have to get better every week. That’s what all the other teams are doing.”

Though the Gophers’ 4-0 start may be surprising to outsiders, no one in Minnesota’s program is shocked. And it’s unlikely Kill expect anything less than a 5-0 record after Saturday.

“It’s just a number right now,” Hageman said.

You could look at the wins and losses as just numbers. But the difference in the Gophers on the field compared to this time a year ago is striking.

Hageman is one individual example, as he’s found out how to best use his 6-foot-6, 301-pound frame to become a force on the defensive line.

Players who perhaps underperformed a year ago or were never given a chance are now making a name for themselves.

That goes, too, for Kill, who was a bit of an unknown when he was hired in December 2010. Slowly but surely, he’s showing why the Gophers took a chance on him to help lead this turnaround.

“I think we’ve moved it forward for the period of time we’ve been here,” Kill said. “But with that being said we’re nowhere close to where we need to be. Nowhere close.”

Given the level of competition in the Gophers’ 4-0 start, excitement must be tempered, and Kill knows that. Minnesota will be tested against bigger, stronger opponents in the Big Ten, beginning Saturday.

But the truth of the matter is that Kill’s team is winning games this year that it wouldn’t have won just one year earlier.

And that counts for something.

“I don’t do so much with wins and losses, but I think we’re certainly better than we were a year ago,” Kill said. “We’ll find out how much better over the next eight weeks and how much they’re going to improve. If we stay the same, results won’t be very good. We’ve gotta continue to make progress.”

Follow Tyler Mason on Twitter.