October 28, 2013 at 1:00 am

Matt Charboneau

Big Ten report: Jerry Kill shapes Gophers into upset-minded outfit

Minnesota’s win last week at Northwestern was a great story.

The Gophers went on the road without their coach and won a game where they were a double-digit underdog to a team that was seconds away from beating Ohio State just a couple of weeks before.

But Saturday’s victory at home over No. 24 Nebraska seems to be proving the Gophers aren’t simply riding a wave of emotion as Jerry Kill takes time off after another epileptic seizure before the Michigan game three weeks ago. No, this is a team that Kill is molding into a winner.

It’s what Kill has done virtually everywhere he’s coached and it looks like his methods are taking hold at Minnesota.

Does it mean the Gophers will be loading up on the Big Ten championship trophies? Nope, but the fact this team is bowl eligible with four games left and seems to be improving in every aspect of the game speaks volumes.

“We’re starting to believe, and that’s really all that needs to be said right now,” quarterback Phillip Nelson said after the 34-23 win over Nebraska. “We have the confidence rolling from week to week, and we’re finally starting to realize how good we can be.”

Good enough to muck up the Legends Division race, handing the Huskers their first conference loss as they still face games against the other contenders — Michigan and Michigan State. And while Minnesota might not contend this season, it appears the Gophers certainly could be in the near future.

Most of the credit goes to Kill, who was at the game again on Saturday — he and his wife drove to Evanston, Ill., unannounced last week — and spoke to the team before the game and again at halftime.

“The way that he can inspire us without even being down there, it’s unbelievable,” Minnesota senior defensive back Brock Vereen said.

Kill has been a winner at nearly every place he’s coached — Saginaw Valley State, Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois included. But many believed the job at Minnesota would be too tough. It would simply be too difficult to build the Gophers into a consistent winner in the Big Ten.

However, as the Gophers keep adding victories, it appears Kill is right on track.

“You dream about being able to switch this thing around,” Nelson said. “That’s just the path that our recruiting class took, because we kind of took a blind leap of faith in this program. The way coach Kill runs his programs, we knew that we were going to have success and it was just a matter of time before we really started rolling.”

And now that the Gophers are bowl eligible, they figure, why stop there. With games at Indiana and at home against Penn State the next two weeks, there’s a very good chance they could keep building on their bowl resume before closing the season at home against Wisconsin and at Michigan State.

“I’ll tell you, you don’t sigh and you don’t celebrate,” said defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, the acting head coach in Kill’s absence. “You get bowl-eligible in October, you reset your goals a heck of a lot higher. We told the kids, ‘We’ve got four Big Ten games left, so we’ve got a lot left we can accomplish.’

“We’re playing very confident right now, and they have to learn now how to handle the success. … Last year, we got our sixth win later in the year, with two games left, and it was kind of a celebration and a letdown. That will not happen this year.”

Hawkeyes revive

It seemed like it had been a long time since anything went Iowa’s way.

Its win over Minnesota to open Big Ten play was a distant memory after tough losses to Michigan State and Ohio State with a bye week thrown in the middle.

That’s why the 17-10 overtime victory over Northwestern Saturday seemed all the more fulfilling for a team fighting to become bowl eligible with five wins and four games to play — three coming against teams still fighting for a conference championship.

“You know, there’s not a lot of great things that come out of losing, not a lot of bad that comes out of winning, either,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “It was good for us. It’s been a while since we’ve been in the victory locker room obviously, and this one came hard. It’s part of winning in conference play.

“There’s nothing easy about it, certainly. That was evident today. But it’s just a real tribute and credit to our guys, especially our older guys. The older guys, seniors, juniors, have been doing a great job of leading going back to November, and it’s nice to see them get a reward for it.”

It didn’t come easy, to be sure.

After quarterback Jake Rudock stood in the face of an all-out Northwestern blitz and found tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz for an 8-yard touchdown in overtime, the defense did the job. Defensive tackle Louis Trinca-Pasat flushed Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter out of the pocket before wrapping him up on fourth down to secure the victory.

And while the numbers won’t wow anyone, the Hawkeyes are making no apologies moving forward.

“The critique-o-meter is out there, and that comes with the territory,” Ferentz said. “But it just shows you what a fine line it is between winning and losing, too, and I think that’s the bottom line.”

Wildcats continue slide

As Minnesota notches its sixth win and Iowa closes in on it as well, it seems hard to believe the path for Northwestern to become bowl eligible is getting darker and darker as each week passes.

Northwestern started the season 4-0 and entered its showdown with Ohio State primed to burst on the national stage. However, the Wildcats suffered a heartbreaking loss, a loss that has apparently derailed their season after falling for the fourth straight time Saturday at Iowa.

“We (stink) right now,” quarterback Kain Colter said.

It’s hard to argue with that considering the Wildcats committed five penalties and turned the ball over twice in Iowa territory.

It leaves the Wildcats scrambling with a difficult road ahead. Northwestern plays Nebraska, Michigan and Michigan State the next three weeks before closing at Illinois.

Try to find two victories in that.

“Right now we have to make a decision,” linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo said. “Are we going to get better or are we going to let this linger on? We just have to keep moving forward.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com
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Minnesota defensive lineman Jordan Hinojosa (96), teammates and fans celebrate after Minnesota beat No. 25 Nebraska, 34-23, Saturday. / Ann Heisenfelt / Associated Press
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