Big Ten football preview: Minnesota Golden Gophers

Big Ten football preview: Minnesota Golden Gophers
July 30, 2013, 10:45 am
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Vinnie Duber

Third in a series

Minnesota hasn’t finished a season over .500 since 2005 and hasn’t won a bowl game since 2004. But in his third year as the Golden Gophers head coach, Jerry Kill is ecstatic about the direction things are heading.

After two seasons without a postseason appearance, Kill led the Gophers to the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas last season, and though it ended in a three-point loss to Texas Tech, Kill is thrilled with the experience it gave his players.

“We're really, really excited at the University of Minnesota and (about) the direction that we're going,” Kill said at Big Ten media day. “It's a great time for us. I think it all started back when we got the opportunity to go to the bowl game and play Texas Tech, and we had a great experience there and spent a lot of good time with our student-athletes. And our kids handled their selves well.

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“And we came up a little short in the game, but we played more like we want to play at the University of Minnesota, very physical and hard-nosed football and probably the first time we've been healthy all year. And I think the kids took the momentum out of the bowl game, took it on to the offseason, did an outstanding job in the offseason getting bigger, stronger and faster. And went into spring ball, felt like we had our best spring ball.”

Kill came to Minneapolis after three years at Northern Illinois, where he oversaw some successful teams. He’s in year No. 3 of trying to turn things around for the Gophers, and he seems extremely confident in doing just that.

“The commitment and the direction we're headed at the University of Minnesota is good, and we're excited about this season,” Kill said. “And I'm looking forward to seeing this team. Each year, each team's different, and this team's approach certainly is different than the past two years. We got better a year ago, and I look forward to seeing us get better this year.”

Last year

Record: 6-7 (2-6 Big Ten)

Bowl: The Gophers lost a close game to Texas Tech, 34-31, in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas.

At the helm

Jerry Kill is in his third year as Gophers head coach. After winning just three games in his first season, he doubled that win total a year ago.

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On the 2013 schedule

Minnesota’s non-conference slate does not feature an opponent from one of the other five BCS conferences, meaning it’s quite possible the Gophers could rack up four wins. They host UNLV to open the season before traveling to New Mexico State then returning for home games against Western Illinois and San Jose State.

Conference play should prove difficult, with in-division games against Michigan, Michigan State, Northwestern and Nebraska. The annual rivalry game with Wisconsin would figure to again heavily favor the Badgers, who the Gophers have defeated just twice since 1995, with the most recent win coming in 2003.

Under center

The Gophers burned the redshirt on freshman Philip Nelson a season ago. Nelson started seven games for Minnesota, completing just over 49 percent of his passes and throwing for 873 yards and eight touchdowns. He’s expected to resume starting QB duties this fall.

“I think we pulled the redshirt off of Philip in the middle of the year,” Kill said. “And he certainly played valuable time for us in the last six ball games and did very well. And it was a great growing process for him. I think it leads us in to this season where we're not trying to break somebody in.”

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Back in the fold

One position Kill seemed especially excited about was running back, where Donnell Kirkwood returns for his junior season. Last year, he ran for 926 yards and six touchdowns.

“I think if you go back through the history of not only where I've coached before but even with the Minnesota Gophers is that we've always had great running backs,” Kill said. “And Donnell has certainly emerged with Roderick Williams and big strong physical backs, and that's kind of who we are. And that's who we want to be.

“So he's done a great job not only on the field but he's done a great job with leadership with our younger players and has been a part of a group of kids that have really changed the culture and the character in our program. So I'm very pleased with his efforts and I expect a great year out of Donnell.”

Season outlook

Minnesota’s two conference wins last season came against struggling Big Ten programs in Purdue and Illinois. Neither team is on the Gophers’ schedule this season, and a regression in conference wins is certainly a possibility. In fact, even with Kill’s program showing signs of improvement, a winless Big Ten campaign would not be out of the question.