Gophers grow since loss to NMSU

Minnesota went 3-9 in head coach Jerry Kill’s first year with the program.

Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill was rushed off the field after collapsing with 20 seconds to go in the fourth quarter on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2011, at TCF Bank Stadium.

Mark Vancleave, Daily File Photo

Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill was rushed off the field after collapsing with 20 seconds to go in the fourth quarter on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2011, at TCF Bank Stadium.

by Jack Satzinger

Sept. 10, 2011, was a day Gophers fans aren’t likely to forget — for the drama more than the football.

With about 20 seconds left in the Gophers’ 28-21 loss to New Mexico State, head coach Jerry Kill suffered a seizure on the team’s sideline, leaving fans stunned and silenced as Minnesota fell to 0-2 to start the season.

It was Kill’s first home game as head coach, but when the game ended, there were more questions than answers.

Now as the Gophers gear up to take on NMSU for the second time in the Kill era, much has changed.

Minnesota is a different team this time around.

Philip Nelson was a senior quarterback at Mankato West High School, and now he’s the leader of the Gophers’ offense.

Ra’Shede Hageman had just one year of experience as a backup defensive lineman after making the switch from tight end at the time, and now he’s one of the best linemen in the nation.

Minnesota has gone from a three-win laughingstock to a bowl team that appears driven behind its youthful roster. Nelson is just a sophomore, and the team starts fewer than six seniors.

Kill has changed as well. Two years ago, most Gophers fans didn’t know the coach had epilepsy, and Kill was hard-pressed to address it. He has since become very vocal about the disease, visiting Camp Oz for Kids with Epilepsy and hosting a “Go-pher Epilepsy Awareness Game” for national epilepsy month last November.

And though most of the current team’s key players were in high school the last time the Gophers lost to NMSU, they still feel responsible for avenging the 2011 loss.

“If that doesn’t motivate you a little bit, then I don’t think you’re human,” Kill said.

Hageman acknowledged that losing to NMSU two years ago was shocking and said the Gophers have “prepared mentally and physically so it won’t happen again.”

Building competition

Still, this Gophers squad has already grown together — adding depth to create competition among teammates. In the past, when a player like former quarterback MarQueis Gray went down, a freshman quarterback came in and got tossed around by a top-notch Big Ten defense.

Now, when Gophers running back Donnell Kirkwood gets injured, a trio of experienced teammates take his spot and hardly miss a beat. Kill said there was a strong sense of competition between backup running backs at Monday’s practice — something the team has never had since he arrived on campus.

“Rodrick [Williams Jr.], David [Cobb] and Cole Banham busted their butts,” Kill said. “They know that somebody’s got a chance if Donnell’s not ready to go, and they’re fighting for it.”

Cobb entered last Thursday’s game against UNLV before Williams Jr. because Williams Jr. was late to a team meeting, according to Kill.

Aggies evolve

NMSU has experienced change over the past two seasons as well, starting with former head coach DeWayne Walker — now the defensive backs coach for the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars. After Walker’s departure, the Aggies adopted a new defensive system.

“They’re a little bit different on defense [than the last time we played them],” Kill said. “They play with the nose guard in there and five outside linebacker types that are big and strong.

“They give you different looks.”

Those types of looks can knock an offense off-balance, but Nelson showed last Thursday that he can get his team back on track.

NMSU runs an up-tempo offense with a game plan that attacks the flat of a defense — an area where linebackers must be active.

“They’re going to run option football out of the pistol,” Kill said. “They’re going to try to throw bubble screens, quick screens … similar to what [Nevada-Las Vegas] did in that regard.”

Minnesota’s defense had difficulty stopping UNLV in the first half of last week’s game, as the Rebels capped off its first drive of the season with a score. The Gophers rebounded defensively in the second half and created big plays that gave them the win.

This week against NMSU, the onus will be on an inexperienced group of linebackers to help stop those short passes.

Minnesota and NMSU have undergone drastic changes since they played two years ago.

As the Gophers head to the nation’s border this week to play the Aggies, Kill said his team will be ready for the challenge.

“We’re going on the road for the first time as a very young football team,” Kill said. “This will be the first time a lot of them go on the road, so we’ve got to do a great job as a coaching staff getting them ready to play.”