Gophers football: Season openers on road frustrate Kill
By: By Marcus R. Fuller, St. Paul Pioneer Press, Superior Telegram
Jerry Kill won’t say how much it frustrates him. He doesn’t want to rattle his team before the first game of the season.
But the Gophers’ second-year football coach doesn’t understand why you’d want to start the season on the road.
For the fourth straight year, Minnesota opens away from home, this season at Nevada-Las Vegas on Thursday, Aug. 30.
Sure, this won’t be like going into the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum against Southern California last year.
But Kill can’t wait until the streak of road openers finally ends in 2013. Then it’ll be four straight years starting the season in front of the home crowd at TCF Bank Stadium.
“We’re trying to build a program,” he said. “That’s what we’d done where I’d been before, at Southern Illinois. When we went into the third year, we played three out of the four opening ones at home. It got us over the hump. We did it. We adjusted some things at Northern (Illinois). So I think it helps you build a program, and again, you’re trying to create enthusiasm within your fans.”
Even with another opener on the road, the nonconference slate still looks to be the most favorable for the program since 2008.
If the Gophers beat UNLV, they should be favored in the rest of their nonconference games, starting in the home opener Sept. 8 against New Hampshire. But that’s no cupcake game since Minnesota has three losses to Football Championship Subdivision teams in the past five years (two to North Dakota State and one to South Dakota).
The toughest test, based on preseason hype, looks like Western Michigan, which is predicted to be a Mid-American Conference title contender. The final game before Big Ten play has the Gophers facing Syracuse, a bottom-level Big East team. But the Orange, who lost to Minnesota 23-20 in overtime in 2009, still have players remaining from a bowl team two years ago.
The last time the Gophers went 4-0 in the nonconference portion of their schedule was four years ago. Tim Brewster’s second season got off to a 7-1 start before it ended with five straight losses. Minnesota opened against Northern Illinois (in its first season under Kill), Bowling Green, Montana State and Florida Atlantic. Three of the four victories were by more than 10 points.
“We got off to a very fast start that year,” said senior linebacker Mike Rallis, who played safety in 2008. “That was a team that had a lot of chemistry, a lot of camaraderie. Those are some things we’re going to want to emulate. Obviously, we’d love to do that. But we absolutely can’t look past this first game.”
Last season’s 19-17 opening loss at USC didn’t provide much of a boost. The Gophers followed it by losing their home opener to New Mexico State as Kill was stricken with a seizure on the sideline late in the game. Kill’s first program win came the next week as he returned to coach against Miami (Ohio). But Minnesota couldn’t carry that momentum forward and lost to North Dakota State.
“We lost to an (FCS school), so we have to worry about getting better every week,” Kill said. “We’ve got to learn to be able to play at a good level every week because we haven’t proven we could do that.”
A soft nonconference schedule was a staple for the Gophers under Glen Mason. But Brewster looked to entice recruits by scheduling future games against North Carolina, Southern Cal and Texas, although the home-and-home series with the Longhorns was canceled because of a dispute over video rights.
Mason played just one ranked nonconference regular-season opponent (Cal in 2006) in his 10 seasons. Instead, the Gophers’ toughest nonconference opponents were from the Mid-American Conference. They played only three BCS conference opponents outside of the Big Ten in the regular season from 1997 to 2006. The first two of those teams (Iowa State and Baylor) were scheduled before Mason took over.
“Even though there was some criticism, that always amazed me because I looked at what other teams were doing,” Mason said. “At the present time, if you’re Illinois, if you’re Minnesota, if you’re Kansas, if you’re Mississippi State or any of those, if you’re playing some of those (BCS conference schools in nonconference), you’re probably not playing an equal.”