The Gophers needed a last-minute touchdown pass from Mitch Leidner to force overtime last year, when they escaped with a victory at Colorado State. So it’s unlikely Minnesota’s players are discounting the Rams heading into Saturday’s rematch.
But Gophers coach Tracy Claeys had to worry about overconfidence forming, when Colorado State opened the season being drubbed 44-7 by long-suffering Colorado on national television.
Now, Colorado State (2-1) arrives at TCF Bank Stadium, offering Minnesota (2-0) a final nonconference test. It could be tough for the Gophers to focus, coming off a bye week and knowing what’s ahead the next two games.
Next week, the Gophers will play before 106,000 fans at Penn State before returning home to face defending Big Ten West champion Iowa. But Claeys has warned of the dangers of looking past the Rams.
“I’m sure they felt like they gave one away a year ago, when we were out there,” Claeys said. “And Coach [Mike] Bobo has done a great job. He’ll have them ready to play.”
Bobo, in his second year at CSU, ran some high-powered offenses during his eight years as Georgia’s offensive coordinator, but even the Bulldogs struggled when they had shoddy quarterback play.
Against Colorado, Rams junior Nick Stevens went 6-for-20 for 31 yards and threw two interceptions.
Against Texas-San Antonio, senior Faton Bauta went 6-for-17 for 82 yards.
“It’s pretty evident we don’t have a starting quarterback, watching us try to throw the ball,” Bobo said then.
He found one last week in Collin Hill, a true freshman from Moore, S.C. Hill completed 21 of 27 passes for 315 yards and had five total touchdowns, including a 51-yard run, in a lopsided win over Northern Colorado.
Bobo noticed teammates respond differently to Hill.
“I think they thought, ‘All right, we’re not going to be one-dimensional; we’re going to be a little more balanced,’ ” he said. “They’d seen his arm talent. There was a confidence level that we’re going to be able to complete some passes.”
Hill will be facing Minnesota’s inexperienced secondary. The Gophers rank 11th in the Big Ten in pass defense, allowing 237.5 yards per game. Colorado State has four multiyear starters on the offensive line and a junior running back, Dalyn Dawkins, the nephew of nine-time Pro Bowler Brian Dawkins.
Dalyn, a transfer from Purdue, rushed for 92 yards and a touchdown against the Gophers last year.
“You have to play physical, you have to tackle well because Dawkins brings it,” Gophers defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel said. “I think he’s a great player.”
The Gophers will try to use an improved pass rush to turn this into a miserable day for a freshman quarterback. After managing just 22 sacks last season, the Gophers have six already this year, and have racked up 14 quarterback hits in each of the first two games.
Bobo noticed the pressure the Gophers have gotten off the edge from true freshmen Tai’yon Devers and Kamal Martin.
“We might line some wide receivers up at defensive end to simulate those two freshmen defensive ends they have who can rush the passer,” Bobo said. “It’s going to be a little bit different, the speed of the pass rush that they will see.”
The Gophers’ own pass protection has been solid; Leidner has yet to be sacked this season. He had a rough start in Fort Collins last year, going 2-for-9 for 9 yards, as Minnesota failed to get a first down on its first six drives. But he hit KJ Maye with the tying, 22-yard touchdown pass with 55 seconds left in the fourth.
Colorado State had a turnover on the first play of overtime, and Ryan Santoso gave Minnesota the 23-20 win with his third field goal of the day.
Asked what he remembers about Colorado State, Leidner said: “I think of a tough, physical football team, one that’s going to hit you in the mouth. And I know they’re going to be hungry to come play us again, especially after how close it was last year.”
This will be an important test for the Gophers. Happy Valley can wait.