Gophers players said they didn’t immediately notice head coach Jerry Kill’s absence in the second half of their 26-10 loss to Michigan State.
Perhaps his seizures are something they’re used to.
Kill had a seizure during halftime of the Gophers’ regular-season finale and missed the entire second half as team doctors tended to him. He was cleared to return home later that night, athletics director Norwood Teague said.
Health scares have plagued Kill, 51, during his two years with the Gophers. He had a seizure on the field during a home game against New Mexico State last September, and he said later that month that he’d had 20 seizures in the past six days.
Kill also had a seizure after Minnesota’s homecoming loss to Northwestern this year.
Kill has seizures on a semi-regular basis. He developed the epileptic disorder after his bout with cancer in 2005.
Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys and Teague both insisted Kill will be fine and said his seizures aren’t a distraction.
“This is a regular deal for him,” Teague said. “We have 100 percent confidence in Jerry. We’ll evaluate [his health] at the end of the year.”
Claeys assumed head coaching duties in the second half and said that “it’s very organized and very structured” when Kill has a seizure.
“There’s no panic in the staff, or the kids or anything,” Claeys said.
Minnesota players said after the game that their focus was on Michigan State not their coach.
“We tried to attack it like nothing happened,” defensive lineman D.L. Wilhite said. “I don’t think too many guys had it on their minds.”
MarQueis Gray said he had no idea Kill wasn’t on the sideline until assistant coach Jay Sawvel gave them a pep talk instead of Kill.
Kill’s seizure overshadowed another egregious performance by the Gophers, who finished their regular season with a 6-6 record.
On paper, that’s a significant improvement from their 3-9 campaign in 2011. But Minnesota was 2-6 in the Big Ten in both seasons. Saturday’s ugly loss was another reminder that the Gophers have a long way to go before being consistently competitive in the conference.
Minnesota’s offense finished the game with 96 total yards — its fewest since 1974 and the fewest by any team in a Big Ten game since 2007.
Gophers true freshman quarterback Philip Nelson was 10-for-23 for 61 yards and three interceptions. He was benched in the fourth quarter in favor of sophomore Max Shortell, who also threw an interception.
“As a quarterback, you’ve got to be able to … make plays and figure things out,” Nelson said.
He said he “just couldn’t get on the same page” as his wide receivers.
The Gophers’ ground game was even worse than its passing game. Minnesota ball carriers totaled four yards on 19 carries.
The Spartans, on the other hand, dominated on the ground behind running back Le’Veon Bell’s career-high 266 yards.
Minnesota had no answer for Bell, who ripped through the Gophers defense, often for gobs of yards at a time.
The Gophers took a 7-6 lead late in the first quarter when linebacker Aaron Hill intercepted Spartans quarterback Andrew Maxwell and returned it 33 yards for a touchdown.
But Michigan State pulled ahead right before halftime on a 41-yard touchdown pass from Maxwell to wide receiver Bennie Fowler.
Maxwell’s original pass was intended for a different receiver, who tipped the pass into Fowler’s arms. Fowler did the rest.
Bell and the Spartans dominated the second half. The 6-foot-2-inch, 240-pound tailback helped set up a pair of Michigan State field goals. He sealed the victory midway through the fourth quarter with an eight-yard touchdown run.
While Michigan State (6-6) needed a win Saturday to make a bowl game, the Gophers became bowl eligible Nov. 10 with their win at Illinois.
ESPN.com projections have Minnesota playing a Big 12 opponent in the Meineke Car Care of Texas bowl in Houston on Dec. 28.
Bowl-bound teams are permitted 15 practices to prepare for their bowl game.
“This is basically a spring ball to us,” Nelson said of the team’s 15 practices. “We can benefit from that right now in the future going into next spring ball.”