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Minnesota in good shape heading into Big Ten play

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP)

(Eds: With AP Photos.)By DAVE CAMPBELLAP Sports Writer

Minnesota is proud of this 4-0 start - the first for this long-struggling program since 2008.

But the Golden Gophers haven't been celebrating, despite the infusion of confidence that has been injected into the team. Wins over UNLV, New Hampshire, Western Michigan and Syracuse, for all the signs of improvement shown during those games, aren't individually impressive. This is where they should be, no matter how rough the last several seasons have been.

''We're excited. We've got a lot of momentum, but if you'd have asked us at the beginning before camp started, we expected to be 4-0,'' tight end John Rabe said. ''We looked at our nonconference schedule, and we said we should win all four of these games and we should be rolling when we get to Big Ten conference play. And that's what we've done, so we've just got to keep doing what we've been doing.''

This attitude has taken hold throughout the team.

''To me personally, we haven't proved much to anybody out there. So I feel like we've got a whole lot more work to do,'' cornerback Jeremy Baltazar said.

Rival Iowa is up next on Saturday, and though the Gophers have two straight wins over the Hawkeyes they haven't won at Kinnick Stadium since 1999. Yes, Iowa has slipped in recent seasons, but with the Floyd of Rosedale bronze pig trophy at stake and a loss at home to Central Michigan last week the Hawkeyes are sure to be fired up.

So right there's another reason why, even when the entire Big Ten appears vulnerable, the Gophers can't afford to get comfortable with their early success.

''You take one day at a time. I think that's an old Willie Nelson song,'' coach Jerry Kill said. ''And I don't have a crystal ball. I can't predict the future. ... I think we've moved it forward for the period of time we've been here, but with that being said we're nowhere close to where we need to be. Nowhere close.''

Though yardage can be misleading and nonconference competition is hard to compare between teams, the Gophers are third in the Big Ten in total defense, another stark contrast from recent years.

On the other side of the ball, lost a little in the attention given to the absence of starting quarterback MarQueis Gray and the emergence of wide receiver A.J. Barker has been the emergence of Donnell Kirkwood as a productive featured running back after an injury-affected his freshman season.

Kirkwood is seventh in the conference with 90.2 yards rushing per game, and the Gophers have been using fullback Mike Henry to help boost a power-style running attack. That helped eat up time and keep the defense fresh in Saturday's win over Syracuse.

''I just think he's gained some confidence in himself, and he stayed healthy,'' Kill said. ''And when you get to feeling ... good about yourself and you feel like you're doing some good things, you get better and you build some confidence. And before long you think you can do a lot of things that people didn't think you could do. So I think he falls in that category.''

The Gophers aren't at full strength. Kill said he doesn't anticipate Gray playing on his sprained left ankle, and with a break in the schedule the following weekend, holding Gray out at Iowa would give him four full weeks to heal before the Northwestern game on Oct. 13. Max Shortell has played well in his place, so the injury concerns are more with other positions.

Left guard Tommy Olson hurt his ankle on Saturday and is ''a big question mark'' to play against Iowa. Jon Christenson has been filling in there. Center Zach Mottla has missed the last two games with a sprained ankle, too, with Zac Epping taking his place and Caleb Bak playing right guard.

''We're playing hard, but we're beat up,'' Kill said ''There's continuity involved in all that. So that makes me a little bit nervous.''

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Follow Dave Campbell on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/DaveCampbellAP

Tagged: Iowa, Minnesota, MarQueis Gray

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