LINCOLN — Whatever Minnesota coach Jerry Kill was about to tell his players in the locker room after they became bowl eligible Saturday didn't need to be said.
His smile gave it all away.
After back-to-back 3-9 seasons, the second of which marked the start of Kill's tenure, the Gophers will be taking part in postseason play this winter. It's a goal coaches and players openly discussed all offseason and a tangible sign of progress.
So the moments following Saturday's 17-3 win at Illinois were special for Kill and his team, sophomore running back Donnell Kirkwood said.
“To see a smile that big on a coach's face — after all the work he has put in and how many people he's gotten to believe and how far we've come — that's all that really matters,” Kirkwood said.
The season's not over yet, certainly. Nebraska's up next and a home game against Michigan State closes out the regular-season slate.
But any kind of milestone is embraced during a rebuilding project, especially when it includes 15 extra practices, a trip to a warm-weather city and added exposure for the program. Emotions consumed the locker room Saturday because the seniors will get to enjoy a memorable sendoff. And sitting at 6-4, Minnesota seems to be quietly establishing a foundation in Kill's second year.
“It's a good thing for our kids. They've gone through a lot of transition, a lot of difficult situations,” Kill said. “I'm very excited for them and our team, but more importantly, I look forward to the progression we can make with our program.”
The future does look brighter for Minnesota.
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Against Illinois, the Gophers started nine freshmen or sophomores on offense, including true freshman quarterback Phillip Nelson. A defense that ranks 25th nationally, with five seniors leading the way, will need some retooling after this season, but a culture is now in place.
NU coach Bo Pelini said this week that he's seen the Minnesota program “steadily getting better.”
“They believe in what they're doing,” Pelini said. “And they've stayed with it.”
Perhaps that is part of the reason why the Gophers didn't panic at Illinois on Saturday, when the Illini were 1 yard away from taking a 7-0 lead on their first possession. But Minnesota's defense stiffened and forced a field goal. The offense overcame injuries — two centers got hurt — and eventually found a rhythm behind the production of Kirkwood, who carried the ball 152 yards on 28 carries.
“It's hard to win on the road, and I let them enjoy it,” Kill said.
So what did Kill tell his group after his smile revealed his satisfaction after the victory? Not too much.
“I probably said less in the locker room than I've said all year,” Kill said.
That also was the case before Saturday's game at Illinois. Kirkwood said Kill's pregame speech was oddly short, though the brevity ended up motivating the Gophers more than any of them expected.
“We know he's fired up when he doesn't really say too much. He was ready to get out there and play,” Kirkwood said. “And then coming out the tunnel, we were loud and rowdy. It was a fun game.”
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