Kill trying to raise Gophers’ confidence before battle with No. 16 Wildcats

The Gophers can clear up any confusion about the quality of their club this Saturday, at 11 a.m., in a road tilt at Northwestern. The Wildcats are 4-0 and ranked 16th nationally.

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Jerry Kill has worn many hats in his five seasons as the Minnesota Gophers’ head coach.

These days, Kill is a part-time sports psychologist.

Yes, Kill’s Gophers currently possess a respectable, 3-1 record. Yet, Minnesota’s players have heard criticism around town in the wake of two straight narrow wins over MAC teams. Thus, Kill has had to boost his team’s self-esteem recently.

"We’re 3-1, but I don’t think sometimes (Minnesota players) feel like we’re 3-1," Kill said on Tuesday, "so we’ve got to make sure they understand that we’ve got a good football team."

The Gophers can clear up any confusion about the quality of their club this Saturday, at 11 a.m., in a road tilt at Northwestern. The Wildcats are 4-0 and ranked 16th nationally.

"We’re going to go play the 16th-ranked team in the country," Kill said, "so we’d better be excited."

Minnesota’s mettle will be tested in Evanston due to a rash of injuries that has afflicted the Gophers of late. Several members of the secondary were felled against Ohio last week, including star Briean Boddy-Calhoun (knee injury), Antonio Johnson (concussion) and Damarius Travis (hamstring). Standout receiver Drew Wolitarsky sustained a mild concussion recently, but is expected to play Saturday.

"Our whole secondary is a question mark, except for Eric Murray," Kill lamented, looking ahead to the trip to Ryan Field.

Said defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys: "From my perspective, it’s taking the healthy guys who are there during this week, spending time . . . finding out what they do best that matches up to give us a chance to win."

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Northwestern’s offense boasts sophomore Justin Jackson, a shifty, 5-foot-11, 190-pound tailback who has registered 516 rushing yards so far this season, on 4.4 yards per carry.

"He’s got great vision, great speed," Kill noted of Jackson. "If you don’t get him wrapped up, he’s going to bounce off of you, and you don’t want to give him any creases."

Minnesota’s mettle will also be tested mightily by Northwestern’s stingy defense. The Wildcats’ defense yields just 128.3 rushing yards per game so far this season. Northwestern’s overall defense is ranked 11th in the nation.

"Right now, this is the most athletic group they’ve had on defense," Kill noted of the Wildcats.

Northwestern is favored by four points this Saturday, but it’s tough to gauge who the true powers are in the Big Ten’s West Division. Every team appears to have flaws, even unbeaten Northwestern, which barely held off Ball State last Saturday, by a 24-19 margin.

The Gophers? They rely on a slew of underclassmen this season, but it’s a talented group, featuring undeniable talents like true freshman tailback Shannon Brooks, who had 82 yards on 10 carries last week.

"Everything is (wide open) in college football," Kill noted. "You don’t know from week to week. . . . Anything can happen on any given Saturday, and until you get in there and play, I think each week is going to be a battle.

"We’re a young team," Kill added, "so I look for us to get better as the season goes."

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