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Gophers have something to build on

Minnesota coach Jerry Kill isn't much interested in moral victories. Nor would you expect him to be, considering he's won everywhere he has coached, to the tune of a 117-70 career record.

So Kill wasn't exactly thrilled about his team's Week 1 result. Sure, the Gophers were heavy underdogs on the road against a ranked team in USC. And they showed a lot of guts by battling back from a 19-3 halftime deficit to throw a scare into the Trojans before falling short, 19-17. But to Kill, a loss is still a loss.

"You can't sit around and go, 'It was nice playing USC close,'" Kill said. "We got beat. I let them know we got beat and I let them know why we got beat, and we took care of it on Sunday."

Yet only a true pessimist could fail to find encouragement in Minnesota's effort. After the Trojans' passing game lit up the defense in the first half, the Gophers responded to pitch a second-half shutout. They had the ball in the final two minutes with a chance to win, and that was with true freshman Max Shortell relieving cramped-up starter MarQueis Gray. Two missed field goals ultimately made a big difference, too.

For a team that went 3-9 last season and replaced its coaching staff, that first-week performance offered optimism.

"We did play USC, and USC is USC," Kill said. "I think we know a lot more about where we're at right now."

They didn't like everything they found out. Kill would like to see his team play with more discipline after what he called some mental mistakes by the secondary in the first half and after Minnesota committed eight penalties when it had little room for error. And Kill was disappointed that his players came out flat and lethargic at the opening kickoff despite this stirring pre-game speech.

Maybe the West Coast trip had something to do with that. But Kill also had staff members tape his own sideline throughout the game, and he didn't like the body language he saw at times. He made the players do some extra running this week to get the point across about how they should carry themselves.

The good news for the Gophers: They now get to work on little things like that with three straight, winnable games at home, starting with New Mexico State this weekend. After that is a visit from Miami of Ohio, whom Kill coached against (and lost to) in his final game at Northern Illinois last year in the MAC title game. If Minnesota handles its business against those two and FCS opponent North Dakota State, it could already match last season's win total heading into the conference opener at Michigan on Oct. 1.

And by then, no one will be talking about moral victories anymore.

"If we're going to be in those close games, we've got to find a way to win them," Kill said. "And I'm used to winning."