Minnesota to meet reeling Illinois in season finalePublished 12:25pm Friday, November 25, 2011
MINNEAPOLIS — Jerry Kill will finish his first season at Minnesota this weekend, wrapping up another forgettable edition of Gophers football. On a seven-year contract, Kill’s rebuilding work has just begun.
Ron Zook might have reached the end at Illinois.
Zook took the Illini to the Rose Bowl four seasons ago, a trip the Gophers haven’t made in 50 years, but he hasn’t been able to turn around one of the Big Ten’s most inconsistent programs. The Illini were 6-0 this season, their best start in 60 years, but they haven’t won since becoming bowl eligible on Oct. 8, putting Zook’s job in jeopardy.
This month, with speculation only heightening about whether he’ll stay, Zook even walked out of his regular weekly news conference when a reporter asked about his employment status.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes in coach Zook — how positive he is, how he’s just able to focus on the things at hand and not get distracted,” quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said.
Whether working on touchdown celebrations in practice or boosting each other’s spirits in the locker room, the morale, Scheelhaase said, is still solid. The coach’s message to the players this week, on the heels of a collapse at home against powerful Wisconsin, has been to keep the season in perspective.
Illinois (6-5, 2-5 Big Ten), which beat Baylor last year in the Texas Bowl, has never won bowl games in consecutive seasons. The last the time Illini went to back-to-back bowls was the 1999 and 2000 seasons. So these players, particularly the seniors, have plenty to play for despite the discouragement of defeats by Ohio State, Purdue, Penn State, Michigan and the Badgers last week.
“They want to show people that this program, it’s going in the right direction,” Zook said.
The Illini are 10 1/2-point favorites over Minnesota on the road for Saturday’s game, giving them a prime opportunity to stop the skid and polish their resume for the bowl committees. With nine Big Ten teams already at six victories — Purdue would be the 10th with a win over Indiana — there’s no guarantee that Illinois goes anywhere, especially with a loss to Minnesota. There are only eight bowls with conference tie-ins, and the eighth pick goes to the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl in Detroit.
“I definitely don’t want to be up north. Too cold for me,” Illini defensive end Whitney Mercilus said. “Somewhere down south would be nice.”
The Gophers (2-9, 1-6), with their 24 outgoing seniors, will do their best to disrupt those holiday travel hopes.
“Definitely this season in terms of the win-loss columns has been an extreme disappointment,” center Ryan Wynn said. “I was hoping to get to go somewhere warm my last year, but I think the thing is we’ve seen our team grow up a lot.”
The coach concurred.
“We’re taking baby steps,” Kill said, adding: “If I’d have been a little bit better coach, maybe we’d have had a little more wins to show for it. But I do think we’re making progress, and if I didn’t think we were, I’d tell you, but I think we are.”
Guys like right tackle Chris Bunders, who moved from left guard when Jimmy Gjere was lost for the season with a concussion, will end their careers after playing for almost countless coordinators and position coaches while learning new system after new system.
“You can only play football so many ways, and eventually there’s some inner-connectedness,” Bunders said. “So it wasn’t too bad, going from offense to offense. I enjoy the challenge, and it’s nice to say you’ve done all that to show you’re a versatile player.”
Recruited by coach Glen Mason, Bunders redshirted in 2007, Tim Brewster’s first year as coach. Mike Dunbar, Jedd Fisch, Jeff Horton and now Matt Limegrover have all taken their turn as the offensive coordinator during his time with the Gophers.
“It was a great time, and I’m just glad I had the opportunity to play all five years,” Bunders said.
Free safety Kim Royston has been eligible for six seasons, transferring from Wisconsin and then sitting out last year with a broken leg.
“I’ve never been a quitter,” Royston said. “As hard as those times were, I think it shaped me into the person I am now. That’s something that will help me throughout my whole life.”
He’ll be one of several on both sides taking the field on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium, savoring the experience, realizing how quickly it comes and goes.
“I really just see this as a huge blessing, and I’m going to make sure I take everything in,” Royston said.