Gophers' Kill: 'We have no room for error'

Gophers' Kill: 'We have no room for error'

Published Sep. 14, 2012 12:00 p.m. ET

MINNEAPOLIS — For the first time in three years, the University of Minnesota football team is 2-0 to start the season. The Gophers earned their second win with a convincing 44-7 victory over New Hampshire last Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium. But now Minnesota will face its toughest test of the season so far when it hosts Western Michigan. The Broncos are fresh off a 52-21 rout of Eastern Illinois last weekend and bring that high-scoring offense to Minneapolis.

Five things to watch as the Gophers look to become 3-0 in an 11 a.m. CT start:

1.  Can Minnesota's secondary slow down the fast-paces Broncos passing game?

Through two games, Western Michigan has attempted 93 passes -- 61 of which have been completed for 667 yards and six touchdowns. By comparison, Minnesota's defense has faced just 71 passes combined against UNLV (in a triple-overtime game) and New Hampshire.

So far, the Gophers' pass defense looks much improved from a year ago, and that starts up front with the defensive line. Minnesota has six sacks in two games, with all six coming from the defensive line.

The Gophers' defense also has four interceptions in two games, which matches the team's total from a year ago. Safety Derrick Wells had two in the opener against UNLV, and safety Brock Vereen and cornerback Martez Shabazz also have picks. But Minnesota's secondary hasn't been thrown at 45 times in a game, which is likely to happen Saturday against Western Michigan and quarterback Alex Carder -- who threw for five touchdowns last weekend against Eastern Ilinois.

"Offensively under Coach (Bill) Cubit, they've always been tremendous, throwing the ball for over 300 yards a game, a football team that's going to be aggressive, attack you and stretch you on the perimeters," said Gophers coach Jerry Kill. "He's a great play caller, and we have a great deal of respect for them."

2. How will the Gophers offense handle Western Michigan's 3-4 defense?

The Broncos employ a 3-4 defense, something rarely seen in college football but a bit more common in the NFL. On Saturday, many of the Gophers will get their first taste of what it's like to play against a 3-4.

"That's a whole different deal which we haven't seen here through the first two ballgames and really haven't seen it a whole lot," Kill said. "So that will be a challenge for us offensively."

Through two games, Western Michigan's defense has four total sacks -- two each by linebacker Paul Hazel and defensive end Deauntay Legrier. The Broncos will try to bring speed from the edges to get to Gophers quarterback MarQueis Gray, who has been sacked four times this season.

3. Which MarQueis Gray will show up?

From Minnesota's first game to its second game, senior quarterback MarQueis Gray looked like a much different player. In the season opener against UNLV, Gray routinely overthrew receivers and was admittedly anxious. He finished that game 17 for 30 for 269 yards and two overtime touchdowns, but he also left quite a few points on the field.

Last Saturday, Gray was much more efficient and poised. He threw only eight passes all game but connected on six of them for 100 yards and two touchdowns. He didn't miss open receivers and he showed great pocket presence on one deep pass to tight end John Rabe.

If this Saturday's game with Western Michigan turns into a high-scoring shootout, Gray will need to throw far more than he did against New Hampshire. Will the senior be ready for it?

"In my opinion, I just needed to do what I needed to do to make sure this team was successful," Gray said of his eight pass attempts against UNH. ". . . That Thursday game (against UNLV), I missed a lot of touchdowns, which led to us going to overtime . . . I've just got to continue to grow as a quarterback and a player for this team and help us win in the long run."

4. Can Minnesota's special teams remain special?

The Gophers' special teams have been an asset in each of their two games. Last weekend, punter Christian Eldred -- an import from Australia -- helped Minnesota win the field position battle by booting four punts for an average of 42 yards. None of his four punts were returned, and one landed inside the 20-yard line.

In the win against UNLV, kicker Jordan Wettstein made three of four field-goal attempts, including the game-winner. He missed his only attempt against New Hampshire, a 52-yarder late in the first half, but has otherwise been reliable. Western Michigan kicker Andre Haldeman, meanwhile, has attempted just three field goals and is 1-for-3, missing kicks of 45 and 46 yards against Illinois.

Both punters hold identical averages -- Eldred's nine punts have averaged 39.1 yards per kick, and Western Michigan's J. Schroeder has averaged the same 39.1 yards on his seven punts. To slow down Western Michigan's passing attack, the Gophers will have to win the field position battle and give the Broncos a long field to work with.

5. Does momentum mean anything?

The feeling among Gophers players seems to be that they're happy but not satisfied with their 2-0 start. During his weekly press conference Tuesday, Kill said three times that his team has no room for error. Still, this is a team that appears to be slowing gaining confidence after finishing each of the past two seasons with a 3-9 record.

With last Saturday's win, Minnesota started the season 2-0 for the first time since 2009. With a win this Saturday against Western Michigan, the Gophers would improve to 3-0 for the first time since 2007 -- which was the last year Minnesota had a winning record.

At the same time, last weekend's win came against New Hampshire, a Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) school. It was a convincing 44-7 Gophers victory, but how much can that carry over into Saturday's game?

"Again, we have no room for error," Kill said. "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."

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