LAS CRUCES, N.M. – Jerry Kill could have just played the cards he was dealt. When he first became Minnesota’s coach, the Gophers were booked this Saturday to play at North Carolina, but he worked hard to remove the Tar Heels from the schedule.
In one of his first decisions as Gophers athletic director, Norwood Teague agreed to pay North Carolina $800,000 to cancel games this season and next season, a choice that generated widespread criticism.
Kill has his reasons. He believes rebuilding programs must create momentum in nonconference play, gaining confidence and experience while making it easier to become bowl-eligible. He compares it to the way Bill Snyder has managed the schedule at Kansas State.
For the Gophers, this has led them to Las Cruces, N.M., a desert landscape that bears little resemblance to Chapel Hill, N.C.
The Gophers replaced North Carolina on this year’s schedule with New Mexico State, a program that has posted a .210 winning percentage since 2005, including a 1-11 mark last year.
Marcus Jones, one of the Gophers’ standouts in last week’s 51-23 victory over UNLV, admits he was disappointed when the North Carolina series was canceled. Granted, he is from Wake Forest, N.C., so it spoiled plans for a homecoming. Jones said he asked Kill about the decision during the offseason.
“He explained it to me, and at the end of the day, it should benefit us,” Jones said. “But what we don’t want to do is make a change like that and then shoot ourselves in the foot and allow them to upset us.”
Added quarterback Philip Nelson: “That’s a decision that is ultimately up to Coach Kill. And as players, it comes down to trust.”
Had the Gophers stuck with North Carolina, an ACC team that finished 8-4 last year, the game almost surely would have drawn national television coverage, as one of the Big Ten’s most appetizing games this week, behind Michigan-Notre Dame.
Instead, the Gophers won’t be televised live on basic cable packages in Minnesota. The game will air on tape delay at 10 a.m. Sunday on Fox Sports North.
With the Big Ten imploring teams to bolster future nonconference schedules, the Gophers reversed course this past May, scheduling a home-and-home series with Texas Christian for 2014 and 2015. The move recouped much of the money Minnesota paid to North Carolina, and helped quiet critics.
But this New Mexico State trip still has its purpose. The Gophers can’t afford to lose. Imagine the indignity of paying North Carolina and then stumbling anyway — against one of the worst college football programs in the country.
The Gophers are 15-point favorites, but they were 20-point favorites in 2011, when New Mexico State came to TCF Bank Stadium and won 28-21. Minnesota was trying to mount a last-minute comeback when Kill, in his first home game as Gophers coach, had an epileptic seizure on the sideline. As painful as those memories are, the coach doesn’t want his team to forget.
“If you get beat by somebody, and you get a chance to go play them again — if that doesn’t motivate you a little bit, I don’t think you’re real human, you’re not a competitor,” Kill said.
Nelson is 3-5 in eight career starts. Backup quarterback Mitch Leidner took his first college snaps in the season opener against UNLV, and if the Gophers can build another comfortable lead, it will be a chance for both quarterbacks to gain experience.
The Gophers are built to run, and they will be without two of their top running backs — starting tailback Donnell Kirkwood and true freshman Berkley Edwards. So, two former Texas high school standouts — Rodrick Williams and David Cobb — will get chances to show off their skills, close to home.
The Aggies opened last week at No. 15 Texas, and the score was tied 7-7 two minutes before halftime before the game turned into a 56-7 Longhorns romp.
“We’ve come a long way from where we were in January, when I got here,” Aggies coach Doug Martin said. “But I don’t want us to be satisfied with playing one good half. God love the people here. They get so excited about anything you do well — and I love that about New Mexico State and Las Cruces — but we’re going to be a lot better.”
For now, the Aggies are a national laughingstock.
Last week, during ESPN’s “College Football Final,” host Rece Davis had some fun with the lowlights against Texas. It started with the coin flip. Texas won the toss and deferred. Aggies linebacker Mike Kaiser said they would kick, only to get overruled by co-captain Darien Johnson, who insisted they receive.
The next clip showed the Aggies lined up in the shotgun formation. Wide receiver Jordan Bergstrom went in motion, and the center snapped the ball right into his helmet.
“You know what this tells me?” Davis said. “That’s why you’re New Mexico State.”
In his weekly Big Ten predictions, ESPN.com’s Brian Bennett wrote: “It was a tough call between Ann Arbor and Las Cruces for the ‘GameDay’ crew this week — seriously, what is Minnesota doing here?”
At least there is this: Bennett predicted a 37-20 Minnesota victory, one the Gophers very much need.