MINNEAPOLIS — Jerry Kill’s program finally got the signature win it was looking for — even if Kill was watching from the press box.
The University of Minnesota football team topped 25th-ranked Nebraska by a 34-23 final, marking the first time since 1960 that the Gophers beat the Huskers and first victory over a Top 25 team since beating then-No.24 Iowa on Nov. 27, 2010. It also makes Minnesota bowl eligible for the second straight year, this time with four games to spare in the regular season.
“I think there’s bigger wins out there for us if we continue to work and believe in each other,” defensive coordinator and acting head coach Tracy Claeys said after Saturday’s victory.
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Claeys has served as the acting head coach since Oct. 10 when the Gophers announced that Kill would take time away from the team to focus on his epilepsy treatment. Kill, in his third season as Minnesota’s head coach, suffered two gameday seizures earlier this year and decided to focus his efforts on his treatment. He has been around the team’s facility and watched from the press box Saturday, and also addressed the team before the game and at halftime.
In Kill’s absence, the Gophers have won two consecutive games with Claeys roaming the sidelines, including last weekend’s victory on the road against Northwestern. While that win was important, it wasn’t as momentous for a Minnesota program currently in rebuilding mode. The fans in attendance at TCF Bank Stadium — at least those in maroon and gold — certainly believed so, as they stormed the field as the clock hit zero in Minnesota’s sixth win of the season.
“Any time you can beat a school with a name and a national brand of Nebraska, I think it helps you,” Claeys said. “It’s hard on the outside when you’re rebuilding a program. Everybody wants to judge everything off wins and losses, and we understand that. That’s how you are judged every week. But the people on the inside who are there every day in practice and work with the kids will tell you we’ve been getting better.”
When these same two teams met a year ago in Lincoln, the Huskers ran away with a 38-14 win over Minnesota. Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez threw for over 300 yards in that game, while the Gophers mustered just 177 yards of total offense.
What a difference a year makes. Minnesota outgained the Huskers by a 430-328 margin and held Martinez — playing in his first game in four weeks — to just 139 yards on 16-of-30 passing. The Gophers controlled the game at the line of scrimmage, gaining 271 yards on the ground. That included a career-high 138 yards from junior David Cobb.
While Minnesota eventually asserted itself as the more physical team, the Huskers came firing out of the gate to take an early 10-0 lead. After the Gophers fell behind early, it appeared as if a repeat of last year’s game might ensue.
But Minnesota remained calm in the face of adversity. After all, this program knows a thing or two about handling adversity both on and off the field. The Gophers took the lead in the second quarter on a 33-yard touchdown pass on fourth down from Philip Nelson to Derrick Engel and entered the locker room with a 17-13 lead, something very few people same coming.
“I don’t think we really batted an eye, to be honest with you,” Nelson said of the early 10-0 deficit. “I think we all have this confidence right now where we know that we can compete with anybody. That’s just the main thing as a football player, you’ve got to believe in yourself if you’re going to go out and compete. That’s where we’re at right now.”
Minnesota and Nebraska have only been in the same conference since 2011, but the Huskers have owned the matchup between these two schools for the past five decades. In the Gophers’ last 16 losses to the Huskers, Minnesota has been outscored a combined 632-128. That included four shutouts and the unforgettable 84-13 loss in 1983.
Those decades of frustration are finally over for Minnesota. Saturday’s win is a sign that the Gophers are no longer a Big Ten pushover.
“As a recruit, you dream about being able to switch this thing around,” said Nelson, who grew up in Minnesota and watched the Gophers struggle before he arrived on campus last season. “That’s just the path that (our) recruiting class took. We took a blind leap of faith into this program. We just knew with the way coach Kill runs his programs that we were going to have success. It’s just a matter of time before we really started rolling.”
Minnesota became bowl eligible last season Nov. 10 with a win against Illinois but followed that victory with two losses to round out the Big Ten season before playing in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. The bowl berth has been secured two games earlier this year. Minnesota travels to play Indiana next week and has games against Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan State after that.
Now that the Gophers have their sixth win and have earned a spot in a bowl game, the priorities shift a bit after Saturday’s upset.
“You don’t sigh. You don’t celebrate. You get bowl eligible in October, you reset your goals a hell of a lot higher,” Claeys said. “That’s what we told the kids. We’ve got four Big Ten games left. We’ve got a lot left we can accomplish.”