CHICAGO -- Minnesota is starting to reflect the passion and desire of its head coach. For Jerry Kill, that's a good thing.
The Gophers competed in the Texas Bowl last December, their first postseason trip since 2009. It was a three-point loss, but the effort resembled something Kill wants to see from his team going forward.
"We played more like we want to play at the University of Minnesota, very physical and hard-nosed football," Kill said.
Kill touted the program's enthusiasm after a 6-7 season. The team posted its best attendance at a spring scrimmage since the mid-1980s. There's a togetherness inside the program that the Gophers haven't felt for nearly a decade. One purpose, one goal, one heartbeat, that's how Kill's defenders now define Minnesota football.
"I think right now we’re comfortable under Coach Kill," safety Brock Vereen said. "We know what he expects. He’s taught us what it’s going to take to win at the highest level. That comfort-ability is going to carry over. When you’re confident in your coaching staff and you know that they’re confident in you, all you have to focus on is performing on the field."
"From a team standpoint, it’s (the goal is) to win more games," defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman said. "Go to a better bowl game. I’m definitely looking forward to this season. We have so many skill players that nobody even knows about. We’ve been the underdog forever. The fact that we get to prove somebody wrong is always a great thing."
The Gophers started 4-0 last year but quickly lost three straight, including two trophy-game poundings to Iowa and Wisconsin. But Minnesota rebounded and gave their bowl chances new life at home against Purdue. The Gophers led 44-7 midway through the third quarter and won 44-28. That victory, along with a 17-3 win at Illinois two weeks later gave Minnesota bowl eligibility.
At the Texas Bowl the Gophers were 13-point underdogs against Texas Tech but outplayed the Red Raiders for most of the game. The Gophers led by seven points with 3:24 left in the game, but Texas Tech rallied with a 35-yard touchdown pass to tie the game with 1:10 left. One possession later, Texas Tech's D.J. Johnson intercepted a Philip Nelson pass and returned it 39 yards to the Minnesota 22. Three plays later, the Red Raiders won the game on a field goal.
It was a tough loss at the time, but the performance provided the team with momentum this offseason.
"We just ran out of time," Hageman said. "The fact that we lost was sad but really it was an eye-opener. I feel like that motivated us in the off-season to be that much better, to kind of prepare us for this year."
Hageman is regarded as one of the Big Ten's best defensive lineman. He's 6-foot-6, weighs 311 pounds and has a freakish build. He finished last year with six sacks and his teammates expect him to become an impact player on every down.
"I think we’re used to it now, but he still makes plays that amaze you," Vereen said. "He is the biggest guy on the field. He’s guaranteed to be the biggest guy on the field. He has the footwork and athletic ability of a defensive back or a wide receiver. To be out there on the field with him, you’re thankful because you know there’s at least one guy out there who will make a play at any given moment."
Minnesota also returns stability at quarterback. Nelson, a true sophomore, started seven games last year. Unlike the past three seasons, there's no controversy. The Gophers bring back all five offensive line starters and running back Donnell Kirkwood, who ran for 926 yards last year.
Defensively, Minnesota returns six starters, including Hageman.
Few expect the Gophers to challenge for a Big Ten title championship, but making strides and reaching a bowl for the second straight season is possible. But those are the outside expectations. Inside the program, the goals are nothing short of the pinnacle.
"The sky’s the limit," Hageman said. "We’re definitely capable of being Big Ten champions this year."
"Our goal is Big Ten championship," Vereen said. "Anything less than that, you’re selling yourself short. When you put in all the work that we’re putting in, physically and mentally, when you’re putting in all this time, the sky is the limit. You owe it to yourself to shoot for the top."
Expectations without limitations. It's a new era in Minnesota.