Kill, Gophers deserve fans’ credit, optimism

With an easy schedule ahead, Minnesota should expect to make a bowl game with at least eight wins.

by Charlie Armitz

It’s easy to understand why Gophers fans are skeptics.

Five years ago, then-head football coach Tim Brewster delivered the famous quote for which he was judged for seasons to come.

“We’re going to win the Big Ten championship, and we’re going to take Gopher Nation to Pasadena,” Brewster said upon his hiring in January 2007. “It will happen here sooner rather than later.”

Minnesota’s failures in subsequent seasons damaged Brewster’s image, the program’s recruiting and many fans’ attitudes toward Gophers football.

Fans ridiculed Brewster and called for his firing. When they got their wish and Minnesota hired sensible head coach Jerry Kill, they rejoiced — but only until Kill struggled to win with Brewster’s players amid a season of health scares and injuries.

Now, as Kill enters the heart of his second season, the Gophers look more like the team Brewster promised us than the team he left us with in 2010.

Is that too much of a stretch? If so, it’s time to take your skeptic hat off and give Kill the credit he deserves.

He’s taken over a program in shambles and rebuilt it to a respectable status. At 4-0, the Gophers are surely bowl-bound, and at the very least, they’ll have improved their win total from a year ago.

But why stop there?

Fans, critics and even Kill himself are selling this team short. With a healthy, well-rounded roster and a favorable schedule, Minnesota should expect to win at least eight games and compete for a Big Ten title.

Defeating Iowa, a bottom-three Big Ten team with two embarrassing home losses in 2012, should be a piece of cake. Don’t mind that the Gophers are six-point underdogs — they weren’t supposed to win last week either. They were supposed to cave to Syracuse’s high-powered offense. Instead, they stifled it with a defense that has emerged as one of the Big Ten’s best.

The Gophers’ next three opponents aren’t much tougher.

Northwestern, despite its 4-0 record, allowed 41 points at Syracuse in week one and hasn’t played a tough opponent since.

Wisconsin, despite its No. 12 preseason ranking, has looked abysmal through four weeks, losing at Oregon State and squeaking by two inferior teams at home.

Purdue is a solid team but no powerhouse. A sold-out TCF Bank Stadium crowd would give the Gophers the edge when the teams meet Oct. 27.

Kill has kept his team grounded throughout its rise to success this fall, claiming it has “no room for error.”

It’s the right approach for Kill given his position. His players aren’t used to success, and he’ll do them no good by adding high expectations to their plate.

But as a fan, why not be optimistic? It’s one of the most fun feelings you can have in sports, and it rarely lasts beyond the first few weeks of the season. It’s even better when your team is in the midst of a historic reversal — a year that future fans may highlight as the turning point in Gophers football.

If Brewster’s broken promise is making you hesitate, consider this: Kill is the anti-Brewster. He doesn’t need concrete goals to succeed. He doesn’t take shortcuts. He doesn’t talk up his team, and he doesn’t obsess about winning.

And it’s not all about winning. Thanks to Kill, these Gophers play hard, disciplined and unselfish. They’re talented, but unlike many other Big Ten players, you can count on them to stick around and represent their school with integrity and pride.

Still waiting for the other shoe to drop? You’ll be waiting a while. Minnesota hasn’t allowed an offensive play of more than 30 yards this season, and its offense has committed just five turnovers. It hasn’t blown a lead despite multiple opportunities. It hasn’t had any off-the-field drama.

Those occurrences are no fluke — in fact, they fall right in line with the kind of football Kill preaches.

The University brought Kill here to revive Gophers football. Is it so hard to believe he’s already done it?