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College football: Gophers look to rebound against Wolverines

Reuters Iowa defensive lineman Dominic Alvis (79) sacks Minnesota quarterback Philip Nelson (9) Sept. 28 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. The Hawkeyes won 23-7.

After a humbling 23-7 defeat to Iowa in last week’s Big Ten opener, the Gophers have no choice but to regroup.

Considering what’s ahead, that won’t be easy. Minnesota travels to unbeaten Michigan on Saturday. A trip to Northwestern follows after a bye week and then the Gophers host Nebraska on Oct. 26. Any chance for a respectable beginning to the conference season seems remote and after a 4-0 record going into the league season, Minnesota could easily lose its first four Big Ten games.

Coach Jerry Kill warned his players that conference play is a different animal from the non-league part of the schedule. Maybe his team listened, but it didn’t do much good against an Iowa team that doesn’t expect to contend for a division title. The Gophers were controlled on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Minnesota fell behind 20-0, picked up just 30 yards on the ground and quarterback Philip Nelson struggled the entire game.

Kill had a simple assessment about what went wrong.

“The bottom line is pretty simple; they controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball,” he said. “There wasn’t a lot in there. There just wasn’t.”

Kill and his staff must not only keep the team’s confidence on a level, they must prepare the Gophers for their toughest stretch of the season. The non-conference wins over UNLV, New Mexico State, Western Illinois and San Jose State, which had given hope the Gophers could hold their own and improve on last season’s 2-6 record in the league, could seem like a distant memory by the end of October.

The Gophers were unbeaten entering Big Ten play last season but a loss to Iowa sent them on a downward spiral. Minnesota lost its first three conference games and only wins over Purdue and Illinois made them bowl eligible. Matching that won’t be easy especially since one home game that seemed winnable is gone.

Traveling to Ann Arbor hasn’t resulted in much success for the Gophers. Minnesota hasn’t won at Michigan since 2005 and is 12-39-1 at Michigan Stadium. The teams will be playing for the Little Brown Jug, the oldest trophy played for in the Big Ten.

Notes, quotes

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

n RB Donnell Kirkwood was counted on to carry the load for the running game when the season started. Thanks to a sprained ankle suffered in the opener against UNLV, that hasn’t happened. Kirkwood returned against Iowa, but carried only three times for six yards. The redshirt junior has gained 36 yards on 14 carries for the season. The Gophers must hope he’s healthy enough to get more carries.

n WR Derrick Engel was one of the few bright spots in the loss to Iowa, catching five passes for 67 yards and a touchdown. He leads the team with 12 receptions for an average of 13.3 yards a catch. Engel has stepped forward in Minnesota’s thin receiving corps and has become a favorite target for both Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner.

n LB Damien Wilson leads the team with 33 tackles, including 10 stops against Iowa. It hasn’t taken long for the junior college transfer to make an impression. He does a solid job against the run and has shown the ability to make big plays with tackles for a loss of yardage and one sack.

n S Cedric Thompson tied for the team high with 10 tackles against Iowa. He has 24 tackles, including 17 solo stops, for the season. He also has an interception. The junior is taking full advantage of his first opportunity as a starter.

SERIES HISTORY: Minnesota is 24-72-3 against Michigan, including a 35-13 loss at home last season.

Strategy

and personnel

GAME BREAKDOWN

Scouting the running game: Reality struck in a bad way against Iowa. After carving up a weak non-conference schedule for an average of 282 yards a game, the Gophers were held to 30 yards last week.

While the Hawkeyes are obviously a tougher test than UNLV, New Mexico State, Western Illinois and San Jose State, the result was a major disappointment. Coach Jerry Kill wants the Gophers to build an identity by running the ball, but that’s not going to happen until the offensive line can control the line of scrimmage. And now that the Gophers are in their Big Ten schedule, the odds of that happening are slim.

Scouting the passing game: Coach Jerry Kill pulled a surprise move when he started Philip Nelson against Iowa. Kill indicated earlier in the week that Mitch Leidner, who led the Gophers to a win over San Jose State, would get the start over Nelson, who injured his hamstring against Western Illinois. Kill changed course and went with Nelson for the Iowa game and the results weren’t good. Nelson completed 12 of 24 passes for 135 yards with two interceptions and a touchdown while playing the entire game. He was also sacked four timed. Minnesota’s lone touchdown came on a 23-yard pass to Derrick Engel. Kill seemed surprised when questioned about his decision to play Nelson, but that issue won’t go away if the offense continues to sputter.

Scouting the run defense: The line suffered the same fate their counterparts on offense went through against Iowa. The Gophers were pushed around at the line of scrimmage and it showed in the statistics. Iowa’s Mark Weisman had 24 carries for 147 yards. The Hawkeyes piled up 246 yards and averaged 5.5 yards per carry. That’s not a good sign as the Gophers head into the meat of their Big Ten schedule.

Scouting the pass defense: The good news was Minnesota held Iowa to 218 yards passing last week. The bad news is the Hawkeyes built a 20-0 lead and didn’t have to throw the ball very often. The Gophers didn’t get close to Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock, who wasn’t sacked. Being unable to stop the run and not putting any pressure on the quarterback will make for a lot of long afternoons. Brock Vereen came back from an injury early in the game to record eight tackles, pick off a pass and force a fumble.

Scouting the special teams: Punter Peter Mortell had a solid day against Iowa. He had seven kicks for a 46.6-yard average, including two punts inside the 20 and two touchbacks. The Gophers never got into field goal range. Return man Marcus Jones was held in check for the third straight game after returning a kickoff for a touchdown against UNLV and a punt for a score against New Mexico State.

ROSTER REPORT:

n S Brock Vereen, who missed part of the Iowa game with a knee injury, is expected to play against Michigan.

n CB Derrick Wells, who left the Iowa game with a shoulder injury, is expected to play against Michigan.

n FB Mike Henry didn’t play against Iowa because of a rib injury and is expected to miss the Michigan game. Maxx Williams, who normally plays tight end, was used at fullback last week.

n RB Berkley Edwards has yet to play this season after injuring his knee in fall practice. He could get a redshirt year.

n CB Briean Boddy-Calhoun will miss the rest of the season because of a torn ACL in his left knee. He’ll get a medical redshirt season and return as a junior next year.

n TE Alex Bisch is out indefinitely with an ankle injury.

n LB Nick Rallis has missed the last three games because of mononucleosis.

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