Gophers roll into matchup with Penn State

Minnesota is very young, but Jerry Kill knows his team can improve more.

Jack Satzinger

The Gophers are heading into their game against Penn State (5-3, 2-2 Big Ten) on Saturday with a glimmering 7-2 record, the program’s best start since 2008.

But that season, Minnesota lost its last five games, falling from a 7-1 record to a 7-6 finish.

This year, under head coach Jerry Kill, the Gophers know they’ve improved but realize how much further they still can go.

“We have the possibility of doing something really special around here,” senior defensive back Brock Vereen said. “It seems like yesterday we were [at] two wins and fighting for the third. … It’s a testament to coach Kill. We believed in his system.”

Minnesota’s last game at Indiana was a learning experience, Vereen said. The Gophers led 35-13, but the Hoosiers fought their way back to take a 39-35 lead before Minnesota squeaked out a 42-39 win.

Vereen said the near collapse showed the Gophers a game is never over. And the season isn’t over yet either.

If Minnesota loses the rest of its games, it will finish 7-6, including a potential bowl game.

That’s an improvement over last year’s 6-7 record, but Minnesota’s coaches were adamant when the season started they wouldn’t be satisfied with that result.

Kill said the recent success is only the tip of the iceberg for this team.

“We’re still not even close to where we can be and where we’ll be a year from now,” Kill said. “They’re all young players.”

The only senior offensive starters are Derrick Engel, Ed Olson and Mike Henry.

Engel emerged as the team’s leading receiver with 361 receiving yards and five touchdowns. But Minnesota’s young receivers have also proven themselves this season.

Freshman Donovahn Jones said he’s one of the fastest players on the team, which showed in Minnesota’s 34-23 win over Nebraska when he ran four times for 42 yards. Last week against Indiana, Jones had three receptions for 59 yards — generating extra yardage after the catch.

Jones is still learning to play receiver after switching from quarterback, but his role in the offense continues to grow.

Kill speaks highly of Drew Wolitarsky, another freshman receiver who recorded a reception in four of Minnesota’s five Big Ten games.

Olson has been sharing minutes this season with redshirt freshman Ben Lauer at left tackle, who Kill said has shown tremendous improvement.

Henry has five receptions over the past three games from the H-back position and has been a big blocker up front during run plays. Still, redshirt freshman Maxx Williams is listed at the same position and ranks second on the team in receiving yards, with 251.

“We know how good we are, but we know how good we can be,” Williams said.

Underdog no longer

Minnesota has won each of its past three games as the underdog. Against Penn State, the Gophers will be favored to win.

Vereen said he recognizes Minnesota’s next step is a national ranking — which he said should happen if the Gophers keep winning. But Vereen said he doesn’t necessarily want to be ranked.

“I like being the underdog,” he said. “If it comes, it would be great for this program. And if we keep on this track, we inevitably will.”