Kill, Gophers not settling for just making it to Meineke Car Care Bowl
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HOUSTON -- Gophers coach Jerry Kill isn't content with the "Happy to be here" mantra.
Four days into the Gophers' nearly weeklong stay in Houston leading up to Friday's Meineke Car Care Bowl, Kill ensures his squad, which remains a heavy underdog to defeat Texas Tech, is determined to use its first bowl appearance since 2009 as a springboard for the program's ongoing "rebuilding process."
"Where we're at with our kids, their focus is pretty good right now," Kill said after his team's practice Wednesday at St. Thomas High School. "We're glad to be here and excited about it, but I think we all know what it feels like when you're not successful when you go play a game. So I think we're pretty focused to see what we can do to win a bowl game."
Doing so would mean beating the odds. Even with an interim head coach, Chris Thomsen at the helm, Texas Tech (7-5) appears to have a decided advantage.
The pass-heavy, offensive minded Red Raiders (501,4 yards, 37.8 points per game) remain 13-point favorites over the Gophers -- a team that sputtered to just one win in its final four games with an offense that could rarely find the endzone.
Although in his second year as head coach Kill helped the Gophers (6-6) double their victory total from 2011, outside satisfaction about his team's progress this season has been split.
There's no denying the Gophers have improved from a year ago, when a bumbling offense and porous defense culminated in a three-win season. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys has reversed his unit's downward trend, and has the Gophers ranked fourth in the Big Ten in pass defense and fifth overall.
But the Gophers have yet to shed their image of a middling program with a hazy future. Kill's team went through the year without a true signature win -- victories over Syracuse and Purdue were arguably its most well rounded games. Despite a strong defense, the "U" offense was a source of endless concern, having failed to score more than 14 points in six games.
All of the program's shortcomings have resulted in a fan base that hasn't fully bought in. However, Kill implores that he can alter that.
A win against Texas Tech, in a low-level bowl game, won't dramatically change the Gophers' direction. But it would not only mean ending a four-game bowl losing streak and achieving the their first winning season in four years, but would also give an ever so slight edge to Kill's sometimes tiring talk about the program's future.
While fans may not be sold, the Gophers have been adamant that they already see this season as a success. Don't take that to mean they're counting themselves out of Friday's seemingly lopsided match-up.
"We've had a good year, but (a bowl victory) would make it a better one," Kill said.
"U" tickets sales lagging
With Texas Tech situated less than 600 miles from Houston, there is certain to be noticeable covering of red and black clad fans throughout the stands at Reliant Stadium.
The competing maroon and gold color scheme might be harder to spot.
As of Wednesday the Gophers had sold 3,163 of their 12,000 allotted Car Care Bowl tickets, KSTP-TV producer and 1500 ESPN.com contributor Darren Wolfson reported. It is an improvement, though small, compared to their showing at 2009 Insight Bowl, when the program managed to sell fewer than 2,000 seats.
The ticket numbers, however, are still below the high expectations athletic director Norwood Teague and the Gophers had. All the remaining tickets will be taken out of the team's bowl proceeds - common practice for all bowl games.
The Gophers aren't alone. Michigan State, which landed in the sub-par Buffalo Wings Bowl (Tempe, Ariz.) after a trip to the Outback Bowl last season, has sold close to only 3,000 of its 11,000 tickets, according to local news site MLive.com.
When the regular season concluded more than a month ago, the Gophers were riddled by a multitude of injuries. Some of those turned into season-ending problems -- defensive tackle Roland Johnson, wide receiver Marcus Jones and linebacker Brendan Beal have since undergone significant knee surgeries.
But in the last few weeks, the Gophers have had a chance to get about as healthy they can be at this point in the season, including the return of starting center Jon Christenson and starting left tackle Ed Olson.
"I think we're in pretty good shape from where we were at the end of the year," Kill said.
No major injury concerns have popped up in the 15 extra practice sessions the Gophers were allotted.
Defensive end Ben Perry tweaked his knee in practice Tuesday, but Kill, who downplayed the issue, noted that he "moved around pretty good" Wednesday.