Preview: Pressure on Gray to increase accuracy in Gophers' home opener
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Who: New Hampshire (1-0) at Gophers (1-0)
When: 11 a.m. Saturday.
Where: TCF Bank Stadium (capacity: 50,805).
TV: Big Ten Network.
Line: No line submitted.
Coaches: Gophers -- Jerry Kill (2nd season, 4-9). New Hampshire -- Sean McDonnell (14th season, 97-62).
Series: This is the teams' first meeting.
Last week: The lead-up to their home opener Saturday was made considerably easier for the Gophers after Kill and company escaped the Las Vegas with a 30-27 triple overtime victory over UNLV in Game 1. Though dotted with inconsistencies and missed chances, there were plenty of upsides -- strong play by the defensive line, catches by nine different receivers, notable upgrades in the secondary. Plus, the Gophers left with one more win than they had by Week 2 a year ago -- a notable positive for a team already one-third of the way to matching its win total from 2011. Meanwhile, New Hampshire, currently ranked 12th in the NCAA-FCS Division I poll, amassed 531 total yards en route to easily dispensing Holy Cross, 38-17, in its opener.
At stake: The optimistic mood currently surrounding Kill's program in-house could be in jeopardy if the Gophers struggle against New Hampshire. The Wildcats, who have been perennial contenders in the FCS playoffs for the better part of a decade, present a more threatening challenge than UNLV, despite the differing divisions. The Gophers are desperate to reverse their recent woes against the FCS (2-3 record in the last five years).
Gophers: Apart from WR Jamel Harbison, the team reported no other injuries this week. Harbison was lost for the season on Aug. 30 after he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during the first half against UNLV. He has yet to undergo surgery, Kill said Wednesday, but the repair is expected to take place in the next two weeks. Kill remained "cautiously optimistic" that Harbison will be ready to participate in the team's winter workouts, starting in January.
Three things to watch
Lesson learned? It's happened before -- more than once. A dismantling defeat by FCS National Champion North Dakota State in 2011 was the Gophers' third loss to an FCS team in five years. Only one other Big Ten team -- Purdue -- has posted more than one loss to the FCS since the NCAA created two Division I subsets in 1978. RB Donnell Kirkwood said earlier this week the Gophers had "learned our lesson" about entering nonconference games with any preconceived notions about an opponent's strength based on its division distinction. The Gophers, given their recent downtrodden history, have pledged this week that they are not underestimating New Hampshire. Kill met with his team council -- a group made up of player representatives from each class level -- to ensure the message reaches the team. "I think our kids have a pretty good grasp that we have to be different. We have no room for error," Kill said. "We're a young team. We're a learning team. We just don't have room for error with anybody. Does that mean we can't beat them? Hell no." New Hampshire won't have the thousands of faithful fans in tow that North Dakota State brought with a year ago, but the challenge awaiting the Gophers has a similar tone. While the Wildcats' last encounter with the FBS -- vs. Toledo in 2011 -- ended in embarrassing 58-22 fashion, they have a 5-4 overall record against the FBS, with wins over Rutgers (2004), Northwestern (2006), Marshall (2007), Army (2008) and Ball State (2009).
Accuracy test: Behind QB MarQueis Gray's seemingly solid passing line against UNLV -- 17-for-30, 269 yards -- was an unsettling truth. The majority of those 13 misses were botched throws by Gray, wobbling out of the reach of his open receivers. Nerves nearly crippled Gray until he was able bypass them in overtime with a sound two-touchdown performance. "I made a few plays but not as many as I wanted to -- A couple of overthrown balls mainly because I was anxious to be back out there," Gray said. "I wasn't being hesitant or scared at all. It was more anxiousness kicking in." That worked as a plausible explanation in the first game of the year. It won't settle well this week in front of a home crowd if Gray is unable to keep his emotions in check. The Gophers' offense hinges on Gray's ability to stay calm and make the correct decision to pass or scramble for a gain. What was comforting offensively for the Gophers last week was that the receivers Gray overthrew had found a way to get behind defenders and into the open. The receiving corps, which heavily skews young, was one of the most questionable areas on the "U" depth chart entering the season. The sample size is small, but if the unit can get to its spots like at UNLV then Gray's chances of injecting a respectable level of accuracy into his throws will be possible.
Bringing the D: UNLV redshirt freshman quarterback Nick Sherry had a bruising, forgettable debut. Prior to the opener, the Gophers defense, under the guidance of defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, had allowed less than 300 yards in a game only once, surrendering 403 yards on average in 2011. So it was considered a surprise when the Gophers kept Sherry disgruntled and out of sync throughout the night. Sherry was sacked twice, knocked to the ground 15 times and allowed to pass for just 116 yards -- a credit to upgraded pressure from the defensive line. A defense that had only nine takeaways in 2011 robbed UNLV for two in Week 1 -- both interceptions by eventual Bronko Nagurski National Defensive Player of the Week Derrick Wells. Claeys' group wasn't error-free -- cornerbacks Troy Stoudermire and Michael Carter were caught out of position several times and the D-line waned in the latter half of the game -- but obvious signs of improvement softened those mistakes, albeit against a sub-par opponent. The Gophers can carry over some positives Saturday when they face another freshman quarterback in New Hampshire's Sean Goldrich. Unlike Sherry, Goldrich's debut went smooth as he threw for 193 yards (21-of-31) and ran for another 71 against Holy Cross. But playing in a 50,000-seat stadium is a little different than the small confines of Holly Cross' Fitton Field. The Gophers will be intent on making Goldrich uncomfortable from the opening snap with similar pressure from their defensive line. Problems could arise if he is able to settle in and get New Hampshire into a rhythm.
The call: Gophers
New Hampshire is not a laughable, out-of-its element opponent. The Wildcats, with McDonnell's speedy multipurpose spread offense, are capable of becoming the fourth FCS team to beat the Gophers. But the Gophers aren't in the vulnerable, outmatched state they were in last year when North Dakota State trampled its way to a near rout. Wells' breakout game against the Rebels and the strong showing by the defensive line gave early credence to the preseason claims by Kill and Claeys that the Gophers defense had indeed been upgraded. The Gophers have to be able to have similar success against New Hampshire - a team fans and onlookers will be expecting to see defeated. Gray's ability to keep his anxiety reigned in will largely determine the offense's production. New Hampshire's defensive scheme is similar to UNLV's, so don't expect the Gophers' approach to change dramatically, with an emphasis on trying to establish a balanced running game. The key for the Wildcats is attacking early and forcing the Gophers to respond. If the Gophers manage to grab a plus-10-point lead by the fourth quarter, they will be geared up to outlast the Wildcats. But if New Hampshire is allowed to see an opening entering the final stretch then Kill may be left to walk off the field perplexed and scratching his head once again.