Gophers taking steps forward, albeit baby ones

MINNEAPOLIS — Getting to a bowl game was the goal all year for the University of Minnesota football team. Now that the Gophers have accomplished that, is it a surefire sign progress has been made from coach Jerry Kill’s first season to his second?

Sure, you could easily argue that making a bowl game is a step in the right direction, and it is after Minnesota’s 3-9 record last year. On some levels, though, this year’s 6-6 record may not be viewed as a complete success, even for a team that won six games the previous two seasons combined.

Four of Minnesota’s six wins came in nonconference play, which means the Gophers were just 2-6 against Big Ten opponents — just like they were last year. Of the Gophers’ six wins in 2012, only two were against teams with winning records. One of those two was over New Hampshire, a Football Championship Subdivision school. The other was against a Syracuse team that finished 7-5 and beat No. 9 Louisville late in the season.

The cause for concern for Minnesota is how it fared against some of the Big Ten’s elite programs. The Gophers’ two wins in the conference were against a Purdue team that finished 6-6 and has just fired its head coach a 10-loss Illinois squad. Minnesota was far from competitive in games against Wisconsin, Michigan, Nebraska and Michigan State, four teams in the upper tier of the Big Ten. The Gophers were outscored by a combined 137-50 in those four games.

When Minnesota can once again compete against best of the Big Ten, that’s when progress will be considered real.

“It’s frustrating because we’ve been close in a lot of those games where it’s come down to just a few plays here and there,” senior linebacker Mike Rallis said of the team’s closer losses. “Sometimes it’s a missed hit here and there. Sometimes it’s just a guy making a play on a third down or something like that. That’s why it’s frustrating, because we’ve been so close on so many opportunities.”

What Kill has done at Minnesota from last year to this year mirrors what he’s done at his previous coaching stops. In his first season at Southern Illinois in 2001, his team went 1-10. One year later, the Salukis were 4-8. In his final season there in 2007, SIU went 12-2 and advanced to the semifinals of the FCS playoffs.

The following year, he took over at Northern Illinois and led the Huskies to a 6-7 record and a spot in the Independence Bowl. The next year, it was a 7-6 record. By 2010, NIU was 10-3.

Sometimes it takes baby steps, as Kill has shown in the past. There wasn’t an instant turnaround at Southern Illinois, but his players bought into his system.

“You go like this when you’re building something,” Kill said last week. “But you’d like to have had another win or two in there, you know. … I think we pushed hard. I think everybody worked to get (here), from administration to the coaches to everybody trying to get the program where everybody would like to have it. Certainly, we worked hard to do that. I think the kids have worked hard. And you know, we’re pretty much in the same place we were at those other places at this point in time.”

Of course, there’s the issue of Kill’s health. Last Saturday, Kill — who has a history of seizures — suffered another one during halftime of Minnesota’s game against Michigan State. He missed the entire second half, and his players as well as athletic director Norwood Teague were left to answer questions about whether Kill’s health is a distraction.

Kill has had seizures in the past, including several while at Southern Illinois. The disorder didn’t affect his job performance then (he’s never missed a game due to seizures), and Minnesota is convinced it won’t change how Kill coaches.

“Regardless of Jerry’s health, we’re making progress in this program,” Teague said Saturday, after Kill had his third gameday seizure in his two seasons at Minnesota. “I know this will bring up questions about him moving forward, but we have 100 percent confidence in Jerry.”

Not that he needed one, but Kill received a stamp of approval from the administration after Saturday’s game. His players – leading receiver A.J. Barker’s recent departure from the team and public rant against Kill notwithstanding — have already given him a ringing endorsement since he first stepped on campus two years ago. Now that the Gophers have played for Kill for two full seasons, they’re seeing the impact he can have on a program.
“It’s all about discipline,” said Rallis, who played two years each under Tim Brewster and Kill. “I think that’s something that we had lacked in the past is discipline. That happens when you go through so many coaching changes — not just at head coach but all different position coaches — you get a different message. You don’t have one consistent message. I think we’ve lacked discipline. That’s something Coach Kill has really brought to us is consistency and discipline.”

Minnesota now has 15 practices to prepare for its first bowl game since 2009. For Kill, this will be his fourth trip to a bowl since 2008. He led Northern Illinois to back-to-back appearances in the Independence Bowl in 2008 and 2009 and left the program after the Huskies played in the Humanitarian Bowl.

The Gophers won’ know until Sunday which bowl they’ll be playing in, but they’re not too concerned about that. The important thing is they’re still playing.

In their eyes, that’s a measure of progress.

“As long as it’s a bowl,” said fifth-year senior cornerback Troy Stoudermire. “I think we’re excited now that we haven’t been to a bowl game in so long that any bowl is good for us. We just want to see success in this program.”

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