Gophers insist mindset regarding FCS opponents has been reconfigured
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Hordes of green and yellow clad fans celebrated in the stands at TCF Bank Stadium last September as Gophers coach Jerry Kill walked into the tunnel to the locker room in a daze, with his eyes directed towards the ground.
Kill was trying to grasp how his team had just been dismantled and embarrassed, 37-24, by visiting NCAA FCS-Division I squad North Dakota State.
"They kicked our butt," Kill recalled nearly a year later on Tuesday. "They physically beat us. They were better than us. It is what it is. They kicked our butt."
Granted, North Dakota State went on to win the FCS-division championship last season, but for the Gophers it was the latest scar in a recent string of failure against FCS opponents.
The Gophers have been the only Big Ten team to post three losses to FCS teams (12-3) -- Purdue is the only other team in the conference with more than one defeat. All three of those losses have come in the past five seasons (NDSU, 2007, 2011; South Dakota, 2010).
But the Gophers insist they recognize that they are in no position to overlook teams. That mindset will be tested on Saturday when the Gophers (1-0) meet New Hampshire to open their home schedule (11 a.m.).
"Everybody is saying the same thing. We can't take them lightly," running back Donnell Kirkwood said. "We all learned our lesson from that last year."
If not, New Hampshire is primed to take advantage. The Sean McDonnell-coached Wildcats, currently 12th in the NCAA FCS rankings, have made it to the FCS playoffs in eight consecutive seasons.
When Kill first arrived at the "U," he felt he had to fight through a small layer of unfounded elitism that players sometimes develop in major conferences. However, that mentality has quickly become grounded in the reality that the Gophers are trying to climb out of the Big Ten's cellar.
"I think you always fight that, but I don't think this team will," Kill said Wednesday after practice. "They shouldn't have any way of thinking that, because we haven't had a lot of success here (lately). Our kids understand where we're at."
Getting their voice heard
Team captains were not named in Kill's first season with the Gophers and that has been true again this year.
Instead, Kill appointed a council made up of players as voted on by the team - eight upper classmen and a representative from each of the underclass levels. The group, which includes Gray, senior linebacker Keanon Cooper, as well as freshmen Philip Nelson, meets each week with the coaching staff to discuss team happenings, from how practices have gone to deciding what uniforms to wear on game-day.
"It's something we've never had here before," Gray said. "It's a bunch of guys that get to voice their opinions to the coaching staff and they actually listen to us. We talk about other players, we talk about what we want to do, how guys are feeling. It's a big chance for us to voice our opinion to the coaching staff."
At the end of the year, the council will vote on captains and announce their selections at the team's annual banquet.
In the meantime, the Gophers are expected to rotate their game captains as they did a year ago. Gray, Cooper and fellow seniors Mike Rallis and John Rabe represented the team at midfield last Thursday for the coin flip at UNLV.
Get 'em when they're young
With lagging student ticket sales, despite a stadium that is only four years old, the Gophers have had to focus heavily on trying to garner renewed interest in the program.
New Gophers athletic director Norwood Teague has wasted little time tapping into the student body from the bottom-up.
Teague came up with the idea to give out free tickets to Saturday's opener to each of the 5,000-plus incoming freshman who attended a rally on Aug. 31 at TCF Bank Stadium, which was highlighted by an address from Kill.
"I told them some very enthusiastic information that probably would get me in trouble if I told you what I said in here, but I told them to have a good time, so to speak," Kill jokingly said to reporters Tuesday at his weekly news conference.
Teague and the Gophers sales staff hopes the giveaway can help boost ticket numbers in the long run.
And they could use all the help possible. Early this week, slightly over 3,000 student tickets had been sold -- about half of the University's total last season.
In another promotional attempt, Kill will be out on the University of Minnesota campus Friday afternoon to reach out to students and entice them to come to the opener.
"Getting our team ready to play is the most important, but I'll go out on Friday, as I did last year, and get in the middle of campus and meet the students and hand out some things to them, some T shirts, some Snickers bars and shake their hand and tell them how much we need them," Kill said.
Odds and ends
• As was noted by Kill on Saturday, freshman wide receiver Jamel Harbison's season-ending ACL tear in his right knee, suffered in the first half against UNLV, was the only notable injury to come out of the first week of the season. Harbison has not undergone surgery yet, but it is likely to take place within the next two weeks.
• Even with an increased emphasis on keeping his receiver corps involved, offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover isn't putting a number on how many times per game quarterback MarQueis Gray is allowed to tuck the ball and run.
"We're not saying 'Hey, we've got to put a cap on it.' It's not Stephen Strasburg. We're not going to shut him down after so many innings," Limegrover said Tuesday. "We never put a limit on those things, because with so much of our offense you don't know if he's going to carry the ball or not on a given play because there are a lot of reads going on."
Gray tallied 17 carries against UNLV, but his efficiency wasn't ideal, gaining 68 total yards (four yards per carry average).
• Shifting true freshman running back K.J. Maye to wide receiver isn't being considered at this point, Limegrover said. Maye was the Gophers' fourth option at running back against UNLV, but was used for the majority of the night in a receiving role (three catches for 23 yards).