Gophers dance into November relevancy


Jerry Kill joked Sunday night that he needs to start barring cameras from Minnesota's locker room.

Kill's locker-room dance display after Minnesota thumped Iowa 51-14 on Saturday went viral. The Gophers coach got down, literally, and, with apologies to Taylor Swift, shook it off surrounded by smiling and chanting players.

What does Kill call his dance?

"Old age," he said, laughing. "Just old age."

You have to be relatively old to remember the last time Minnesota had so many reasons to party. After beating Michigan in Week 5 and now Iowa, the Gophers are in possession of both the Little Brown Jug and the Floyd of Rosedale for the first time since 1967, also the last year Minnesota held a more coveted prize: the Big Ten championship trophy.

Minnesota finds itself in a three-way tie atop the Big Ten West Division with Nebraska and Wisconsin at 4-1. If not for a surprising loss Oct. 25 at Illinois, the Gophers would have just a single blemish on their record -- an increasingly understandable road loss against TCU -- and would be just one of two Big Ten teams without a conference defeat.

As it stands, the Gophers control their own fate in the division as they chase their first league title in 47 years.

"I told our kids, 'Any time you're playing for something in November, it's a great thing,'" Kill told ESPN.com. "When we first got the program, we weren't playing for anything. So when you're playing in November and playing for something, it don't get any better than that."

Minnesota put itself in position to play meaningful games last season, when it won four straight Big Ten games -- for the first time since 1973 -- to set up showdowns with Wisconsin and Michigan State. But the offense fizzled, as Minnesota scored a combined 10 points in losses to the Badgers and Spartans, and the team faded with three consecutive defeats to end the season.

Things feel different this year. Minnesota is finding greater balance in its offense thanks to dynamic tight end Maxx Williams, and it continues to play solid defense.

The stretch-run schedule -- Ohio State, at Nebraska, at Wisconsin -- looks daunting. Or fun. It depends on your viewpoint.

Minnesota fans should celebrate the spotlight that remains on the program this week. Kill senses the excitement around the program and from recruits.

Ohio State is one of the few non-trophy games on Minnesota's Big Ten schedule, but Saturday's game in Minneapolis provides something even more valuable than jugs, axes, bells or even bacon. Well, maybe not bacon, but you get the point.

National respect. That's what Minnesota can gain by upsetting a surging Buckeyes team led by one of the nation's hottest quarterbacks in J.T. Barrett. The Gophers last beat Ohio State in 2001 and have dropped 23 of their past 24 meetings against the Buckeyes. Ohio State is a 12.5-point favorite.

"They've been a powerhouse for years," Kill said. "It's a great challenge for our program. We're moving the program forward and certainly if you can upset Ohio State, that would be a huge step."

"This is significant. It's a big deal."

Former Minnesota coach Glen Mason, now a Big Ten Network analyst, stressed the importance of the Gophers following up a good season in 2013 with possibly an even better one.

"The die-hard Minnesota fans, they're excited," said Mason, who still lives in Minnesota but spends most of the season traveling because of his broadcast obligations. "It's guarded excitement because they've been disappointed before. There's the old saying, jump on the bandwagon. But if they can win Saturday, there won't be any more room on the bandwagon."

It's notable Minnesota continues to improve despite being hit hard by injuries. Nine players are out for the season, Kill said, six claimed by ACL injuries. The offensive line, the engine of Minnesota's run-based offense, has been "like musical chairs."

Minnesota has practiced with a two-huddle rotation for most of Kill's tenure, which has allowed more players than usual to gain valuable experience.

"Our offensive line, first and second team, gets the same amount of reps," Kill said. "We play a lot of kids on defense anyway. We feel like that's how you build depth."

Mason thinks even if Minnesota wins one of its final three games, the season can be labeled very good. Two wins would further validate the program's progress under Kill.

And three?

"They'll throw a ticker tape parade," Mason said, "and they should."

Forget the parade. Hold a city-wide dance party, starring Jerry Kill.