Gophers football coach Jerry Kill thought it was a good sign last Saturday when several players returned to the team’s football complex to study video of that afternoon’s 23-7 loss to Iowa instead of venturing out on homecoming night.
The loss might have drained enthusiasm from campus, but the Gophers didn’t have time to wallow in self-pity. Not with a schedule that could leave them as big underdogs in six of their seven remaining games.
It resumes Saturday at Michigan Stadium, where the Gophers lost 58-0 two years ago on their last visit. The battle for the Little Brown Jug has been awfully one-sided, with Minnesota’s lone victory in the past 22 meetings coming in 2005.
“Everywhere I’ve been, when we’ve turned programs around, there’s been a defining moment,” Kill said this week. “And usually that defining moment’s winning a game that maybe you’re not supposed to.”
In his third year with the Gophers, Kill is still looking for a signature win with the program. Now the Gophers (4-1) will need at least one perceived upset this season to reach the six-victory mark required for a repeat bowl appearance.
After No. 19 Michigan, the next two games are at No. 16 Northwestern and at home against Nebraska. A victory against any of those would be an upset for the Gophers.
Then comes the trip to Indiana on Nov. 2. Entering the season, Indiana and Iowa were the two Big Ten games most Gophers fans expected to win. But the season concludes with three tough ones — Penn State and Wisconsin at home before the regular-season finale at Michigan State.
“You can’t worry about what it says on the side of the helmet all the time,” Kill said. “Sometimes you go, ‘Oh, you’re going to play Michigan, and they’ve done this for the last 10 years.’ And then all of a sudden, you’re beat before you get started.”
Gophers players spoke confidently this week. Some might say too confidently.
Safety Cedric Thompson said it’s not if they’re going to win at Michigan but “when we win.” Speaking of Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner’s eight interceptions, Thompson said, “I think he kind of just panics a lot.”
And when asked about not getting psyched out by the 4-0 Wolverines, Gophers defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman said, “Just the fact they almost lost to Akron, they’re human. You know what I mean?”
Those quotes circulated through the Detroit papers, but Michigan coach Brady Hoke didn’t take the bait.
“Some of that can last about one play,” he said. “You kick the ball off … and you get that first hit in you, and you concentrate on what you have to do.”
The Wolverines are 19½-point favorites. Like Iowa, Michigan is stingy against the run, which was the strength of Minnesota’s offense through nonconference play.
The Gophers rushed for only 30 yards against Iowa, forcing quarterback Philip Nelson to do more through the air. He struggled, throwing two interceptions, taking four sacks and missing other open targets.
“We did a great job on Sunday of really being critical of ourselves, learning from [the film] and moving on,” Nelson said. “And now we’ve got a great chance to go turn this thing around and go out and do something special.”
Nelson said the biggest lesson he learned was the importance of getting rid of the ball safely and avoiding sacks. If the receivers play as well as they did against Iowa, there should be passing opportunities against Michigan, which has given up 232 passing yards per game, ranking eighth in the Big Ten.
With backup quarterback Mitch Leidner waiting on the sidelines, this will be another big test for Nelson, and he’ll be taking it in front of about 110,000 screaming Michigan fans. The Wolverines are 17-0 at home in Hoke’s three seasons.
“I think we’ve got to go out and remember that we’re playing the game we love,” Nelson said. “We’ve got to just be able to go out there and play loose and just react and not tense up so much. And that’s where we were at last Saturday [against Iowa].”
Kill said in all the pregame meetings and walkthrough sessions last week, the players seemed sharp and ready. But once kickoff came, the coaches quickly sensed how badly players were pressing.
Nelson missed a few passes and was hesitant to keep the ball on the read option, which he and Leidner had run so successfully in the first four games. Another example of nerves came from talented outside linebacker De’Vondre Campbell. He froze up when Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock scrambled for a second-quarter touchdown run.
By the end of the game, the Gophers knew they hadn’t played like themselves. Kill said the players barely said a word in the locker room afterward, which he took as a good sign, knowing how much they cared.
Because it’s an emotional game played by young adults, college football can feature big swings. West Virginia got blown out by Maryland 37-0 two weeks ago before storming back last Saturday to upset then-No. 11 Oklahoma State 30-21.
“It’s like anything in life — sometimes it’s about how you handle adversity,” Kill said. “You’re in a Big Ten schedule, and you’re going to have some good things that happen to you, and you’re going to have some bad. It’s how you deal with it.”