Gophers vow not to take FCS opponent lightly
MINNEAPOLIS — As Gophers head football coach Jerry Kill talked about his team’s upcoming home opener Saturday against New Hampshire, he likened Minnesota’s opponent to a neighboring school to the west: North Dakota State.
Yes, the same North Dakota State team that came to TCF Bank Stadium last season and easily handled the Gophers to the tune of a 37-24 win for the Bison. NDSU went on to win the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) title, but its victory over Minnesota, a Big Ten and Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) opponent turned some heads early in the season.
When New Hampshire comes to Minneapolis for the Gophers’ home opener, Kill and his team are hoping they don’t see history repeat itself against another FCS opponent.
“I’ll be honest, North Dakota State, they kicked our butt,” Kill said Tuesday. “They physically beat us. They were better than us. It is what it is. They kicked our butt. I think that any time, being on the other side of that, is when you come in and play, this is a bowl game for New Hampshire. North Dakota State, it’s a big game. So you have a little incentive.”
After losing handily to NDSU a year ago, Minnesota knows it can’t take yet another FCS opponent lightly. And since their season opener last week against UNLV fell on a Thursday, the Gophers were able to watch some of the games around college football on Saturday.
Included in those was a game between Big Ten powerhouse Wisconsin and FCS school Northern Iowa. The Badgers needed a late defensive stand to escape their season opener at home with a 26-21 win over the Panthers.
Surely, there have been several cases to indicate that the FCS can boast some pretty tough competition — and nobody knows that better than the Gophers.
“We can’t take any team lightly. We learned that last year. We learned that just from watching teams this Saturday,” said Gophers running back Donnell Kirkwood, who rushed for a team-high 81 yards in Thursday’s win over UNLV. “That’s how we’re going into this game: don’t take them lightly. Go out and play them like they’re any other team.”
New Hampshire won its opener by a 38-17 final over Holy Cross. The Wildcats advanced to the FCS playoffs last year before losing 26-25 to Montana State in the second round.
This year’s UNH squad returns seven starters on defense and seven starters on offense, meaning the core of last year’s team that went 8-4 is still intact.
“They’re a program that’s used to winning. They’ve been winning a long time,” Kill said of New Hampshire. “… New Hampshire’s been in the I-AA playoffs year in and year out. Coach (Sean McDonnell) has been there for a long time. They definitely have a great system. They’re well-coached.”
In Saturday’s win over Holy Cross, the Wildcats attempted 35 passes while also rushing the ball 49 times for 84 total plays on offense. By comparison, Minnesota ran 46 times and had 30 pass attempts, 76 total plays.
The Gophers’ defense will certainly be kept on its heels by a quick-paced UNH offense.
“They’re going to spread you out. They’re going to snap it 90-100 times a game,” Kill said. “They’re a no-huddle offense. They’re going to get up and boom, boom, boom, boom. … Offensively, they very much want to be like an Oklahoma State or an Oregon pace. They want to get the ball snapped as many times as they can.”
Kill has been on both sides of an FBS-FCS matchup. He was the head coach at Southern Illinois for seven seasons and took on bigger FBS schools. And just last year, in his first season at the helm at Minnesota, his team lost to a smaller FCS school.
He knows the underdog mentality of those smaller schools as they travel to a big stadium, and he found out the hard way that the mentality of the bigger schools can’t include overlooking their FCS opponent.
“We won a lot of games when I was at I-AA at different places,” Kill said. “As a head coach, I told them, ‘Hey, this is your deal. Put (yourselves) on the map.’ The kids, they’re going to play their best. You’re going to get their best. If you don’t bring yours, you’ll get in trouble.”
Follow Tyler Mason on Twitter.