It took Minnesota’s Jerry Kill only one month of this football season to further his reputation as a turnaround artist.
At Kill’s four previous coaching stops — Saginaw Valley State, Emporia State, Southern Illinois, Northern Illinois — his teams produced better records his second season than his first. In many rebuilding jobs, Year Two often can be more difficult than the first.
But Minnesota — 3-9 last year — is 4-0 now and heading to Iowa for a good chance to start a season 5-0 for the first time since 2004 under Glen Mason.
The Gophers’ success hasn’t caught Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio off guard.
“I felt coming into the season,” he said Tuesday, “that they might be the surprise team of the conference.”
Dantonio said Kill’s teams “play extremely hard, they don’t beat themselves very often, and they are innovative and cutting-edge in many ways.”
Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz, who has to game plan for Minnesota this week, also is impressed.
“Coach Kill has done a wonderful job up there in a very short amount of time,” Ferentz said. “They’re not 4-0 by some fluke.”
Two statistical categories tell the story of Minnesota’s 4-0 start.
The Gophers are first in the Big Ten and 17th nationally in turnover margin. Last year, they were last in the Big Ten and 100th nationally.
The other: UM is 21st in total defense with seven interceptions. Last season, it was 77th with four interceptions in 12 games.
Kill said Tuesday there was no specific point since spring ball where the staff felt that a major jump was imminent defensively.
“It’s been a work in progress,” he said. “We felt like we got better through the spring. But until you go play games, you really don’t know exactly where you’re at.
“We felt we added some people to the defense and some depth with recruiting. We redshirted some kids. And we had some younger players who gained some weight and got stronger.”
Minnesota’s defensive front four has drawn rave reviews, with some Big Ten Network analysts seeing that group as the second best in the league behind Purdue’s.
In particular, nose tackle Ra’Shede Hageman and defensive end D.L. Wilhite have turned heads. Hageman, a 6-foot-6, 301-pound junior, has 3.5 tackles for loss among his 14 stops. Wilhite, a 6-3, 244-pound senior, has 5.5 tackles for loss, including a Big Ten-best 4.5 sacks.
“Any time you’ve got good players,” Kill said, “it makes you a lot better coach.”
On offense, Minnesota was expected to rely on the scrambling and playmaking of senior quarterback MarQueis Gray.
But Gray has missed the past game and a half with a high ankle sprain and won’t start at Iowa. That duty goes to sophomore Max Shortell, who has completed 58.5 percent of his passes with four touchdowns and one interception. Minnesota also has a highly regarded quarterback in freshman Philip Nelson, who is redshirting.
“We made a strong emphasis in recruiting on quarterbacks,” Kill said. “I feel like that position is critical.”
Kill also emphasizes internal player development, which is why he uses two offensive stations in practice so the backup quarterback and line get as many repetitions as the starters.
“The way we practice has helped us because we don’t have a lot of depth,” he said. “We’re very young, so the more repetition you get in practice, the better you get.”
In what is looking like the Year of the Darkhorse in the Big Ten, even Minnesota, which comes to Nebraska on Nov. 17, has a chance.
Irish halt series
Notre Dame’s move to the Atlantic Coast Conference has prompted the first big shock wave in Big Ten football scheduling.
The Fighting Irish were scheduled to play Michigan through 2031 (with a two-year exception). But this weekend, Notre Dame served notice that it will cancel the series, which now will end after the game in 2014.
Though Notre Dame remains independent in football, it has agreed to play five ACC foes a year. The Irish also plan to continue playing USC, Stanford and Navy every year.
With only four other scheduling slots available, that could jeopardize yearly series with Michigan State and Purdue, too.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke took the news philosophically Tuesday.
“Notre Dame made a decision, it wasn’t our decision,” he said. “It’s unfortunate and it’s a great rivalry and all those things.
“But we’ll move on. There are some new scheduling opportunities for us.”
Bad blood brewing?
Penn State plays at Illinois on Saturday, and the hard feelings over the Illini’s effort to pick players off the Nittany Lion roster this summer after NCAA sanctions haven’t been forgotten.
Illinois sent six assistants to State College, Pa., after Penn State players were declared free agents who could transfer and play immediately without penalty. One Nittany Lion backup offensive lineman did transfer.
Illinois coach Tim Beckman told reporters this week that he had spoken to Penn State coach Bill O’Brien at Big Ten Media Days about the situation.
That’s not how O’Brien remembers it.
“I think I met him at the Big Ten Media Days, but that’s about it,” O’Brien said. “We’re focused on our first Big Ten game on the road.”
Nice to see a little cat-fighting between coaches to spice things up.
Quote of the week
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer on the fact that the Buckeyes are last in the Big Ten in total defense and are allowing 5.3 yards per play:
“That’s very alarming. And that’s something that’s got to change real fast.”
Stat of the week
The Big Ten, despite playing nonconference schedules considered relatively tame, has only three schools ranked better than 52nd nationally in total offense (No. 9 Nebraska, No. 10 Indiana, No. 31 Purdue).
Bits and pieces
Purdue is getting votes in both polls for the first time in five seasons. ... Illinois will stick with Nathan Scheelhaase at quarterback despite the lopsided loss to Louisiana Tech. ... Purdue’s Cody Webster has punted just 12 times this season, but 10 have been downed inside the opponents’ 20-yard line with no touchbacks. ... Penn State tailback Bill Belton (ankle) could play for the first time since the season opener.
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