Gophers' Kill searching for signature win

It didn't seem like much at the time, but it turned out to be the tipping point for Jerry Kill's Southern Illinois team.

In 2002, the Salukis were staring at their 19th consecutive loss to rival Western Illinois, at the time ranked No. 8 nationally in Division I-AA. SIU had squandered a 13-point halftime lead and trailed 52-48 with 1:11 left. But the Salukis responded with a 10-play, 80-yard drive culminating in a 6-yard touchdown pass as time expired. SIU prevailed 54-52 for its first win against Western Illinois since 1983.

Southern Illinois ended up finishing 4-8 that season, but Kill knew something had shifted.

"That particular game kind of turned the tide for that program to take the next step," the Minnesota coach told ESPN.com.

SIU went 10-2 the following season and averaged 10 wins during Kill's final five seasons.

Entering his third year at the helm at Minnesota, Kill is searching for a similar tipping-point game for the Gophers -- a moment that can shift the course of the program.

"You've got to find a way to get one of those signature wins, get one of those games," he said. "We play three or four rival games. We need to get one of those, maybe do it with a [last-minute] field goal. Everywhere I've been, we've had kind of a signature game where it flipped and we really got going for the program."

Kill moved from Southern Illinois to Northern Illinois in December 2007. He cites a September 2010 road win against, coincidentally, Minnesota, as the pivotal moment for the NIU program. The Huskies went on to win the MAC West division title that year. They've won back-to-back MAC championships the past two seasons.

Minnesota has recorded a few notable wins during Kill's tenure, including a 22-21 upset of rival Iowa in 2011 which kept the bacon in Minneapolis for the second straight year. But the Gophers' other Big Ten victories under Kill aren't much to get excited about: Illinois (twice) and Purdue.

He wants that to change, ideally early in the 2013 season.

"Where I've been in the past, maybe we weren't supposed to beat somebody, won it by a field goal, whatever, and that seemed to turn the tide of the whole program," Kill said. "That's where we're at in Minnesota right now. We need to find one of those."

The rivalries Kill refers to have been one-sided as of late. Minnesota has dropped nine straight to Wisconsin and five straight to Michigan. Even Minnesota's pseudo rival, Penn State, has won four straight in the series.

Like Kill said, the 2013 season provides opportunities. Minnesota visits Michigan on Oct. 5, as Kill's team returns to the place where it reached a low point (a 58-0 loss) in 2011. The Gophers also host Penn State (Nov. 9) and Wisconsin (Nov. 23), and have potential signature win chances against Nebraska (Oct. 26), Northwestern (Oct. 19) and Michigan State (Nov. 30).

Kill would never characterize Minnesota's 34-31 setback against Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas as a signature loss, but he saw things from his team that indicate a breakthrough could be on the way.

"I hadn't seen that type of physical football team or what I'm used to since I’ve been at Minnesota," Kill said. "That's the first time I thought, "Hey, this is the way I'm used to having a football team play. This looks more what we're about.'

"Hopefully, we carry that into the season this year."