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Updated: November 8th, 2012 2:03am
Gophers 'not going to even think about' missing out on a bowl game

Gophers 'not going to even think about' missing out on a bowl game

by Nate Sandell
1500ESPN.com
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Mike Rallis doesn't want to hear about the possibility of the Gophers falling short of reaching a bowl game after a 4-0 start.

When the subject is brought up, the senior linebacker abruptly stiffens and his voice takes on a level, but serious tone.

"I'm not even going to think about it," Rallis said. "Not making a bowl is not really an option for me. It's not really on my mind."

Rallis won't have to think about the idea again if the Gophers can win one more game.

One victory stands between the Gophers and their goal of becoming bowl eligible for the first time in three years. Reaching that mark, or even surpassing it, is highly realistic goal, but the margin for slipups has drastically narrowed with only three games remaining.

The Gophers have stumbled repeatedly since entering Big Ten play, bluntly outplayed at times and in other instances derailed by self-inflicted mistakes. Those missteps have added up to losses in four of their last five games, including a stinging defeat last week by Michigan.

However, coach Jerry Kill's team travels to Illinois on Saturday with their best chance to cross that elusive six-win threshold at stake.

Though the Gophers have had their troubles this season, the Illini have had it worse. First-year coach Tim Beckman hasn't been able to spark a quick turnaround as Illinois' season has dramatically stalled out. Six straight losses have dropped the two-win Illini to the bottom of the Big Ten standings.

Owner of one of the nation's lowest scoring offenses (18 points per game), the Illini are stuck on the backend of most statistical categories in the Big Ten. With that in mind, it makes sense that they are stuck with Purdue as the only teams yet to notch a conference win.

Illinois' compounding problems make Saturday's game a golden opportunity for the Gophers, who until this week hadn't been favored in a Big Ten match-up this season. But for the Gophers to capitalize on that chance and take a significant step forward in Kill's proposed plan to resurrect the program, it would mean posting their first conference road win in seven games.

Coincidentally enough, that streak started immediately after the Gophers left Champaign-Urbana with a 38-34 victory two years ago.

"Our expectation is -- we want to keep moving this thing forward," Kill said. "Yeah, it's a critical game for us, there's no question about that. But I think the next three games are critical for our program."

As Kill backed up, Rallis' "Bowl game or bust" mindset is shared by the entire team, even by the underclassmen who have not been through the repeated losses and frequent coaching changes the Gophers' senior class has endured.

"If we lose, you can see it in their eyes that they kill," freshman receiver K.J. Maye said. "When you can tell that somebody cares about losing like that, than you know you are on the right track. We're going to get them to a bowl game. We're going to get it."

Down a pair

The Gophers will be without two of their main wide receivers on Saturday. Kill reiterated after practice Wednesday that junior standout A.J. Barker, already considered a long shot to be available, won't play as a result of his slow recovery from a right ankle sprain.

Kill also deemed fellow junior Derrick Engel as unavailable. Engel strained his hamstring in the fourth quarter of the Gophers' loss to Michigan last weekend, and like Barker, hasn't practiced this week.

With both out of the mix, the Gophers are lacking on options at receiver. Barker and Engel are responsible for 44% of the team's total receiving yards (792 out of 1797), with Barker controlling the bulk of those numbers.

The depletion of targets means the Gophers need an increased output from the rest of the receiving corps, primarily senior MarQueis Gray, sophomore Isaac Fruechte and sophomore Devin Crawford-Tuft. Kill has called out his receivers, specifically Crawford-Tufts, demanding the group understands the elevated roles they must take on.

"We made our point pretty clear yesterday," Kill said. "We had a pretty intense practice and little bit of intensity after practice. They understand they need to step up, several of them."

Notes

• If junior left tackle Ed Olson returns to the offensive line on Saturday after missing three games with an injured right foot, Kill said his appearance would be limited to, at best, 10 to 15 plays.

"That would be our goal, but I don't know if that will happen," Kill said. "He practiced in scrimmage situations yesterday and then he struggled today, so we'll see.

Olson has been progressing solidly in practice for the last two weeks, but his status was put into question again when tweaked the foot on Wednesday. Redshirt sophomore Marek Lenkiewicz has started in place of Olson.

• A deep cut on his right leg has kept safety Derrick Wells close to only 30 defensive plays in each of the last two games. Against Michigan, he did not start for the first time this season, entering in the second quarter. Wells has had the gash repeatedly restitched as it has opened up numerous times in games and practices. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys has not imposed a restriction on Wells' playing time and expects him to be in the secondary rotation again this weekend.

"We've kind let him decide on that with how (the leg) felt," Claeys said. "With the rest we knew it would be better in the long run. He's ready to go ... We'll just see how he feels Saturday, but that would be our goal."

• Rallis still keeps in touch with former Gophers interim head coach Jeff Horton, who briefly took over the program for a five-game stint in 2010 after Tim Brewster was fired mid-season.

"He calls me, sends me a text every now and then to say, 'Good luck,' and ask me how I'm doing. He's a great guy," Rallis

Horton has served as an assistant head coach and running backs coach at San Diego State for the last two seasons. The Aztecs are currently tied with Fresno State atop the Mountain West standings with a 7-3 record.

Nate Sandell is a contributor to 1500ESPN.com.
Email Nate | @nsandell
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