- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Maybe the breakthrough was inevitable. It certainly wouldn't have been the first time a Jerry Kill-coached team took a significant step forward in Year 3.
Northern Illinois went from six wins to 10 in Kill's third season (2010). Southern Illinois went from four wins to 10 in Kill's third season in Carbondale (2003). Minnesota has only matched its 2012 wins total, but following back-to-back Big Ten victories, including last Saturday's historic triumph against Nebraska, there's a sense that more success lies ahead.
"Something about that third year," Minnesota defensive back Brock Vereen said.
Perhaps. But Kill's previous Year 3 makeovers didn't occur under circumstances that seemed as unusual and dire as the ones Minnesota faced three short weeks ago.
Kill wasn't even with the program. After a seizure prevented him from attending Minnesota's Oct. 5 game at Michigan, he announced Oct. 10 that he would take a leave of absence to focus on epilepsy treatment. His return was unknown, and his longtime defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys would serve as acting coach.
Kill's health and future sparked debate around the program and nationally. How could a coach who had suffered five game-day seizures continue to lead a Big Ten program?
Minnesota had been outscored 65-20 in its first two Big Ten games. The Gophers were just 4-14 in league play under Kill, and had yet to win consecutive conference games.
The quarterback situation was messy, as neither Mitch Leidner nor Philip Nelson had performed consistently enough in league play. Minnesota had completed a Big Ten-low 59 passes for just 701 yards in the first six games.
Not exactly ingredients for a breakthrough. But that's exactly what has happened.
"I don't know how you explain it, really," Claeys said.
Start with Claeys himself. On a staff known for its continuity -- six assistants have been with Kill more than a decade -- Claeys has been there the longest, joining Kill at Saginaw Valley State in 1995.
Despite no head-coaching experience, Claeys knew the messages Kill wanted conveyed -- the two stayed in touch throughout Kill's time away -- but he delivered them in his own way.
"Coach Claeys is definitely calmer than Coach Kill," Nelson said. "That might be something that has been good for us at this time. We can't really get too emotional about anything that's going on right now."
Claeys admits he's "more level" than his fiery boss, and while he tried to keep the message as consistent as possible during Kill's absence, mimicking Kill in team meetings and game-day speeches wasn't the answer.
"The kids, they've been around me long enough," Claeys said. "If I go out there and do something else, they'll know I'm trying to be phony."
Minnesota's breakthrough also can be attributed to a mind-set. After a bye week, the Gophers went to Northwestern on Oct. 19 with confidence, as they had held the Wildcats offense in check the year before in Minneapolis.
Whether that confidence would last through the game remained to be seen. There had been some positive signs early in the season, including four decisive non-league wins, but the Gophers had a habit of letting the sideline sink when bad things happened on the field.
Claeys sensed a shift after Minnesota had the go-ahead touchdown at Northwestern called back on a bogus offensive pass interference penalty and then missed a field goal. The response: a pick-six two plays later.
"Northwestern was really the first time in a Big Ten game that we had some things go against us, and we bounced back and really played with a next-play mentality," Claeys said. "It doesn't promise anything, but I told the kids, 'If you do that and you play that way, most of the time in the fourth quarter, you'll have an opportunity to win.'
"It all seemed to come together at Northwestern and gave us a little boost."
Minnesota faced more adversity against Nebraska, which built a 10-0 lead in less than eight minutes. But Claeys sensed a shift after a Theiren Cockran sack stifled a Nebraska drive that had started in Gophers territory.
When Minnesota responded with a 13-play, 75-yard touchdown drive, the confidence was back. The Gophers went on to beat Nebraska for the first time since 1960, as their fans flooded the field.
"Nobody panics anymore," Vereen said. "That first five or six minutes against Nebraska, they really couldn’t have gone any worse. But the atmosphere on the sideline was still very, very positive. There was never any doubt that we had a chance to win.
"In earlier years, it would have created some kind of domino effect. That goes to prove that we're a different team."
Like many coaches, Kill has had guest speakers address his team, including former football players who had their careers shortened. While the desired message came through -- that something you love can be taken away -- it didn't take full effect until the Gophers saw it happen to one of their own.
"Coach Kill has been such a huge inspiration to all of us," Nelson said. "The players respect him a lot, and just being able to think about everything Coach Kill has gone through with the media and his health and everything like that, we just want to play for him.
"That really motivates everybody."
Kill and his wife, Rebecca, drove from Minneapolis to the Northwestern game, and Kill addressed the team at halftime and after the 20-17 win. He attended every practice the following week and took on a more active role in the coaches' booth against Nebraska. As Kill eases back toward full-time duty, he spends much of his time in the office calling recruits, Claeys said.
Kill will remain in the booth for this week's game at Indiana.
"We aren't going to screw it up right now," Kill said Tuesday. "I am a little superstitious, and we’re not going to change a whole lot."
Superstition has had nothing to do with the Gophers' surge. As Vereen puts it, the coaches have taught the players how to win.
They have no intention of stopping now.
"Our goal isn't to win six games and go to a bowl game," Nelson said. "We want to keep climbing the ladder."
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