MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota coach Jerry Kill walked into the room for his weekly news conference and saw a larger-than-normal media throng gathered to listen to his remarks.
“Crowd’s getting bigger,” Kill said with a smile. “Must be something going on this weekend.”
Only the biggest game in Kill’s three years on campus. And Kill isn’t about to mess with the approach that helped the Golden Gophers (8-2, 4-2 Big Ten) get to this point.
Kill will do his coaching in the showdown against No. 16 Wisconsin (8-2, 5-1) on Saturday from the booth rather than the sideline, which is where he’s been for each one of the past four games, all victories for the surprising Gophers.
Kill’s program was reeling from two straight blowouts to Iowa and Michigan when he took a leave of absence to address his epilepsy.
He returned to watch the game against Northwestern from upstairs, then stayed there as he gradually resumed his head coaching responsibilities for victories over Nebraska, Indiana and Penn State, Minnesota’s first four-game winning streak in Big Ten play since 1973.
With all that in mind, Kill is sticking with what works. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys will continue to work from the sideline as the coach with the most responsibility on the field.
“We’re doing very well in how we’re working together and doing it,” Kill said. “And second thing, I think that’s what’s best for our football team right now.”
Being up in the booth allows Kill a better vantage point to see the field. He said he also enjoys being able to more easily communicate with his coaching staff, and after initially being resistant to leaving the sideline, the stubborn coach appears to be warming to his new location.
“It’s really not much that different, except you’ve got another coach on the field managing,” Kill said. “And actually in some ways better to manage a game. … It really hasn’t changed except it’s a lot warmer for me and a lot colder for coach Claeys.
“And I’m getting older. I can go to the bathroom when I want to because there’s so many TV timeouts. And I can’t hear everybody, so if everybody’s booing me I can’t hear that, either.”
Kill was loose and relaxed on Tuesday and he’s hoping his players stay the same way for the game against one of their biggest rivals.
For the first time in a long time, things are going right for the beleaguered program. They’ve won eight games for the first time since 2003 and with a strong finish could play in a coveted bowl game on Jan. 1.
And as impressive as their win streak has been, this will be their biggest test yet. The Badgers will roll into TCF Bank having won five in a row and fresh off a 51-3 stream-rolling of Indiana.
A win on Saturday would send a huge message that these aren’t the same old Gophers any longer.
“This will be one of the more dominant teams that we’ll face this year,” defensive back Brock Vereen said. “It’s a game where, no matter what you’ve done this year, even though we are happy as far as the success we’ve had, when you go into a rivalry game, whatever you’ve done means nothing.”
Their task was made even tougher on Sunday, when Derrick Engel, the team’s leading receiver, went down with a knee injury in practice. Kill said they won’t know the extent of the injury until after Engel gets an MRI, but the fear is that he could be lost for the rest of the season.
“Derrick’s a great receiver, there’s none like him,” quarterback Philip Nelson said. “I feel like we’ve got a great stable of receivers that can step in and do their job. It will be a loss if we do lose him. … I’m confident in our other receivers.”
Just another piece of adversity in a season full of them for the Gophers, who remain confident that Paul Bunyan’s Axe will stay in Minnesota for the first time in 10 years. Odds makers have installed the Badgers as 14½-point favorites, which is nothing new for the Gophers.
“It is pretty highly anticipated, especially the fact that we’re both 8-2,” Nelson said. “That plays a part in it. But at the same time, we’re still huge underdogs. That seems to never change and that’s right where we want to be.”
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