Minnesota rises as Big Ten falls

The Gophers have improved drastically during Jerry Kill’s tenure.

Jack Satzinger

In 2011, the Gophers limped out of their nonconference schedule with a 1-3 record — their only victory was a narrow one at home against winless Miami-Ohio.

The next week, Minnesota played its first conference game under head coach Jerry Kill at No. 19 Michigan and was humiliated 58-0. 

“I remember being here and saying we better get stronger, faster, better athletically, or we are going to be in trouble,” Kill said Saturday after Minnesota defeated Michigan for just the second time since 1986.

When the Associated Press released its Top 25 poll the day after the Gophers’ 2011 loss to the Wolverines, Michigan had moved up to No. 12, Wisconsin to No. 4, Nebraska to No. 14 and Illinois to No. 19.

Michigan State sat just outside the top-25 and finished at No. 12 by the season’s end.

Minnesota ended up near the cellar of the conference standings, winning only three games. 

The Big Ten was respectable that season, even though two of its marquee programs were going through tough times — Ohio State struggled amid sanctions, and the scandal at Penn State was on the verge of coming to light.

And per usual, Minnesota was a bottom-feeder. Oh, how the times have changed.

In the past year, Minnesota has topped Michigan, Nebraska and Penn State, while each of those programs and nearly every other member of the 14-team conference has seen a dip in success.

“It builds confidence with our kids more than anything,” Kill said Sunday about the rivalry wins. “You’ve got to enjoy those moments. They don’t happen very often.”

With those three big conference victories and others under their belt, the Gophers are more accustomed to winning. And it seems like they’re really starting to believe in their success.

“There was no, ‘Oh my goodness, this is the big time,’” redshirt senior defensive lineman Cameron Botticelli said of Minnesota’s victory at Michigan. “We prepared, we know what we can do and we are going to show the world what we can do.”

Minnesota’s next two games are at home against two of the Big Ten’s worst teams, Northwestern and Purdue, followed by a road trip to Illinois. The Illini have had moderate success this year, especially when new quarterback Wes Lunt is on his game. But Illinois also has the third-worst run defense in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

Going up against Minnesota, which ranks No. 15 in rushing, could spell trouble for the Illini.

The Gophers will be 7-1 a month from now if they win those three games. But Minnesota finishes its season with four tough games against Iowa, Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin.

The contests against Nebraska and Wisconsin are on the road, but Minnesota already has a recipe for winning in hostile environments.

“We knew we had to come in and hit them in the mouth early. Playing teams like this, once you come out strong and come out fast and get on top of them, they will kind of lay down a bit,” junior receiver KJ Maye said.

Although Iowa has manhandled the Gophers the past two seasons, Minnesota managed a one-point victory in 2011.

Minnesota beating the Hawkeyes this year wouldn’t be a surprise. In fact, the Gophers might be favored heading into that game.

And while Ohio State hasn’t lost to Minnesota since 2000, an inconsistent Virginia Tech team blew out the Buckeyes at home, and Ohio State has an inexperienced quarterback, J.T. Barrett.

Kill said beating Michigan was “up there” as his best win as Gophers head coach, along with topping Iowa in 2011 and Nebraska and Penn State in 2013.

But if more Big Ten teams start sliding like Michigan has, more big victories could be coming for Minnesota.

“We are getting there; we still have a ways to go. I’m not stupid. This is certainly a good step,” Kill said.

 

David Nelson contributed to this report.