Jerry Kill’s young Gophers should have plenty to be thankful for this Thanksgiving weekend.
The Michigan State game is at TCF Bank Stadium; both programs are 0-4 in their Legends division and if worse comes to worse, they’re still bowling at 6-6, which is a consensus success for Kill in his second year.
But Kill has a chance to elevate his crippled squad (21 players on the injury report this week) to a signature win over Michigan State and a finish virtually nobody saw coming: a 7-5 record heading into a bowl game.
For once, it’s the Spartans at 5-6 who are fighting for a bowl berth after stumbling to the bottom of Big Ten.
“They’re still Michigan State,” Kill said at his weekly Tuesday press conference. “They haven’t slipped any. They’ve just been in a heck of a lot of close games against good teams.”
Kill’s squad just returned from a 38-14 destruction in Lincoln, Neb. in which the second-year coach said he thought his athletes were tired from the consecutive road trips to Illinois and Nebraska.
“I think our team was fatigued a bit going into Lincoln because of the tough stretch we’ve had,” Kill said.
Kill said he was going to give his players more of a rest this week to “get their legs under them.” The 20-plus injured players on Kill’s roster will need the break as well.
Defensive tackle Roland Johnson is out for the year with an ACL injury. Kill said he hurt it during a walkthrough in practice. Offensive lineman Marek Lenkiewicz is questionable this week with a knee injury and linebacker Brendan Beal is out with another knee injury — the junior was out all of 2011-12 with a knee injury.
“My prayers and thoughts [are with Beal],” Kill said. “That kid’s been through so much.”
Gophers freshman quarterback Philip Nelson didn’t see much improvement with left tackle Ed Olson Jr. back in the mix against Nebraska.
Olson Jr. missed four games before facing the Cornhuskers and Kill said the junior captain will practiced this week and had no set backs.
The last time Minnesota topped Michigan State, former quarterback Adam Weber had a career game on Halloween night in 2009. The current Tampa Bay Buccaneers back-up threw for 416 yards and five touchdowns en route to a 42-34 victory at TCF Bank Stadium.
Nelson, six touchdowns and two interceptions in his first four games, was brought back down to Earth against the Cornhuskers. The Mankato, Minn. native threw 8-for-23 for a season-low 59 yards and zero touchdowns to two interceptions.
Although the Spartans are trying to reach a postseason game, Kill said he’s not worried about Michigan State being any more motivated.
“It ain’t going to be any tougher than last week,” Kill said.