College football: Gophers’ opener offers big challenge
By Andy GrederSt. Paul Pioneer Press MINNEAPOLIS -- Consecutive eight-win seasons, a program first since 2002-03, has given the Gophers football program respect within the Big Ten. But an upset victory over No. 2 Texas Christian, a game on nation...
By Andy Greder
St. Paul Pioneer Press
MINNEAPOLIS - Consecutive eight-win seasons, a program first since 2002-03, has given the Gophers football program respect within the Big Ten.
But an upset victory over No. 2 Texas Christian, a game on national TV during college football’s opening night Thursday at 8 p.m., would cast Minnesota under a bright national spotlight.
Gerry DiNardo, a Big Ten Network commentator, said people within the Big Ten “footprint” from New York to Nebraska already understand the reclamation project coach Jerry Kill has done at Minnesota.
“I think people outside the footprint have no idea,” DiNardo said. “If they beat TCU, someone outside of the footprint might ask, ‘How good have they been?’ Then they go on the Internet and start looking at their records and will see the steady progress.”
Those outsiders would discover that Kill, in his fourth season a year ago, led the Gophers to their first winning conference record (5-3) since 2003 and an appearance in their first New Year’s Day bowl since 1962.
Rick Moore, author of “University of Minnesota Football Vault: The History of the Golden Gophers,” said a U win Thursday would be the biggest home victory since 1977 when the Gophers knocked off top-ranked Michigan 16-0 at Memorial Stadium.
“When you look at that, it’s 38 years, and obviously that was the No. 1 team. But what really strikes me is of all the key wins and huge upsets over top 10 teams, most of those have been on the road in the last 40 years,” Moore said.
Other monumental wins in recent history include Minnesota knocking off No. 2 Penn State 24-23 on the road in 1999 and the 29-17 win over No. 6 Ohio State in Columbus in 2000.
“When you can remember every big upset so clearly because they only happen about once a decade, its a testament to how starved we are for major upsets, especially at home,” Moore said.
The last time the Gophers played the No. 1 team in the country, they got smoked, losing 44-0 to Ohio State in 2006.
But in the regular-season finale last season, the Gophers led No. 14 Wisconsin 17-3 in the second quarter, with a spot in the Big Ten title game on the line. Then, the Badgers scored 31 of the final 38 points to win 34-24.
DiNardo provided color commentary for that game in Madison, so he had a firsthand look at how close the Gophers are to competing on the national landscape.
“I know they aren’t that far away,” DiNardo said.
TCU coach Gary Patterson, who is close friends with Kill, would not be among those to have his perspective of the Gophers altered if his team loses. While the Horned Frogs beat Minnesota 30-7 in Fort Worth last September, Patterson was impressed with the Gophers’ meticulous and physical style of play.
“They were a really good football team when we played them,” he said.
Patterson said his positive view of the Gophers was reinforced when Minnesota was competitive in Ohio State’s 31-24 win over the U in November. The Buckeyes then steamrolled Wisconsin 59-0 in the Big Ten title game, then beat Alabama 42-35 and Oregon 42-20 to win the inaugural College Football Playoff.
“(They) probably played Ohio State as well as anybody did, even better than anybody did in the playoffs,” Patterson said of the Gophers. “We understand the physicalness of playing somebody like Minnesota. At least, we better. Our young players, if they’re not (ready), they’ll find out.”
What-if optimism on a shocking win for the Gophers must be tempered with a double dose of reality.
TCU barely missed out on the inaugural four-team playoff during a 12-1 season in 2014 and is a two-touchdown favorite in this season’s opener. The Horned Frogs are led by dual-threat senior quarterback Trevone Boykin, a Heisman Trophy favorite.
“I think (Minnesota’s) biggest challenge is going to be (TCU’s) offense,” DiNardo said. “When you’re playing these spread teams, you just try to keep the plays to a minimum. Hopefully, Minnesota’s defense runs well enough to keep the plays to a minimum.”
On defense, the Horned Frogs lost six of their top seven tacklers from a year ago, and the team leader in sacks from 2014, senior defensive end James McFarland, was not listed on Tuesday’s depth chart.
But Patterson is a defensive guru. He has welcomed Gophers defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys to Fort Worth for strategy sessions over the past dozen years. Those meetings have been put on hold with the teams playing each other.
To stay in the game, DiNardo said the Gophers will have to be able to run the football on first and second down to provide manageable conversion situations on third down.
“If they get behind the sticks, and TCU gets them into a third-and-long situation, that is problematic for Minnesota,” DiNardo said.
Playing TCU will provide a litmus test for where the Gophers stand in 2015. If TCU’s high-octane offense overwhelms the Gophers’ defense, it will provide a teaching moment.
“If it’s a one-sided game, you want to know why it’s a one-sided game,” said DiNardo, who coached at Indiana and Louisiana State. “You just have to figure it out and go from there. They will move on to the second game (against Colorado State) whether they win or lose, obviously.”
During July’s Big Ten media days in Chicago, Gophers cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun painted what he called a “vivid picture” of how the Gophers view the respect they now receive.
“Some people walk through the front door, and they beat you up,” Boddy-Calhoun said. “Minnesota is going to walk through the back door, and we are going to beat you up. Then we’re going to walk right out that back door.
“With respect comes the ability to walk through the front door,” he continued. “Now that we’re walking through the front door, we’re still going to beat you up.”
The unranked Gophers, who have received a few votes in the national polls, have said having TCU as their season opener drove them to work harder all offseason. It had a bigger impact than preparing for Eastern Illinois as the season opener in 2014.
Senior wide receiver KJ Maye admitted he often thinks about what an upset would mean for a Gophers program on the rise.
“I daydream about it,” Maye said. “We’re playing against some good guys, and it’s going to be a big test.”
Moore, too, has thought about the possibilities and its place in history. When the Gophers beat No. 25 Nebraska 34-23 in 2013, fans stormed the field at TCF Bank Stadium.
“That was warranted because it had been so long since we beat Nebraska,” Moore said. “But they weren’t an incredibly great team that year.”
A win Thursday would be in a separate category, coming against a highly regarded TCU team.
“This might be the game,” Moore said. “This might be the season.”
The Gophers are 5-16 all time in games against teams ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in the country:
2006 - No. 1 Ohio State 44, Gophers 0
1999 - Gophers 24, No. 2 Penn State 23
1998 - No. 1 Ohio State 45, Gophers 15
1997 - No. 1 Penn State 16, Gophers 15
1996 - No. 2 Ohio State 45, Gophers 0
1986 - Gophers 20, No. 2 Michigan 17
1986 - No. 1 Oklahoma 63, Gophers 0
1984 - No. 1 Nebraska 38, Gophers 7
1983 - No. 1 Nebraska 84, Gophers 13
1979 - No. 1 Southern California 48, Gophers 14
1977 - Gophers 16, No. 1 Michigan 0
1975 - No. 1 Ohio State 38, Gophers 6
1973 - No. 2 Nebraska 48, Gophers 7
1970 - No. 1 Ohio State 28, Gophers 8
1969 - No. 1 Ohio State 34, Gophers 7
1961 - Gophers 13, No. 1 Michigan State 0
1960 - Gophers 27, No. 1 Iowa 10
1955 - No. 1 Michigan 14, Gophers 13
1948 - No. 1 Michigan 27, Gophers 14
1947 - No. 1 Michigan 13, Gophers 6
1938 - No. 2 Notre Dame 19, Gophers 0