MINNEAPOLIS — For the first time since 2009, the University of Minnesota football team is 2-0. But does that mean anything?
For starters, it sure beats the alternative: an 0-2 start, which is what the Gophers suffered last year during head coach Jerry Kill’s first season in charge. Minnesota dropped a close game on the road to Southern Cal to open the 2011 season before New Mexico State upset the Gophers at TCF Bank Stadium the following week.
Things are different this year. Being 2-0 in 2012 has given the Gophers a bit of confidence halfway through the non-conference season. True, New Hampshire — who the Gophers beat 44-7 on Saturday — is not the same caliber of team that Minnesota will face when it gets to Big Ten play later this month. But Kill’s team easily handled the Wildcats and looked in control from start to finish, which is what should be expected when a Big Ten school hosts a Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) opponent.
Yet while Minnesota might be feeling good after two wins to open the 2012 season, Kill cautioned about getting too high after narrowly beating UNLV in triple overtime and beating up on an FCS opponent.
“I think they’re starting to understand where we’re at and what you have to do,” Kill said Tuesday of his players. “I think they understand we have no room for error because we’ve still got a lot of work to do.”
That line, “no room for error,” was something Kill uttered several times during his weekly press conference Tuesday. Despite starting off 2-0, things will only get tougher for the Gophers. Saturday’s upcoming opponent, Western Michigan, scored 52 points last weekend against Eastern Illinois. On the flip side, the Broncos only scored seven points against a Big Ten school (Illinois) in their season opener.
Still, Western Michigan averaged 333.5 passing yards per game through its first two games, meaning Minnesota’s defense — and the Gophers’ perfect 2-0 record — will be tested.
“This is the first time we’ve been 2-0 in a while,” Gray said. “You can just sense that energy and that confidence going through this complex. That’s one thing we’re looking forward to this week … is being confident, having fun and getting excited for a chance to be 3-0.”
After hosting Western Michigan, the Gophers will close out the nonconference season when they play Syracuse at TCF Bank Stadium on Sept. 22. The Orange nearly beat Northwestern in a 42-41 shootout before losing to No. 2-ranked USC by a 42-29 final last weekend.
If Minnesota can get past its final two non-conference opponents unscathed, it would enter the Big Ten docket with a 4-0 record for the first time since 2008. The Gophers’ first conference opponent is Iowa, a team they’ve beaten in each of the past two years. While Minnesota plays the Hawkeyes on the road this season, it faces an Iowa team that barely beat Northern Illinois 18-17 in the opening week and lost to in-state rival Iowa State 9-6 last Saturday.
The Gophers certainly aren’t looking that far ahead yet. They’re focused on Western Michigan, who comes to TCF Bank Stadium in just a few days.
For now, Minnesota’s coaches and players are enjoying the feeling of being 2-0. But at the same time, they know exactly what Kill means when he says they have no room for error.
“That’s one thing he preaches to us every day,” said senior quarterback MarQueis Gray. “One false move can end up costing us the game. That’s one thing we’re trying to limit is the mistakes that are going to cost us the game. If we get that minimized, then we’ll be pretty good this week.”
Before the 2012 season began, the Gophers players talked about a trip to a bowl game being the goal for this year’s team. After finishing 3-9 in each of the past two seasons, that seemed like a logical goal for a program looking to take the next step.
Now, after a 2-0 start, Minnesota is already one-third of the way to the six wins necessary to become bowl eligible — but a lot could happen between now and the end of the season.
“I think the biggest thing that you have to do as a coach, and your coaches, which we’ve been through, is stay consistent no matter you win or lose,” Kill said. “You just stay the same, and you can’t get too far up and you can’t get too far down. I think the kids reflect how you act sometimes. …
“Again, we have no room for error. We have to play really, really good, clean football to have a chance to be successful with anybody on our schedule. That’s just the way it is right now.”