There are right ways and wrong ways to approach a game in an intimidating, hostile football environment like the one the Gophers will face Saturday in Lincoln, Neb., and Jerry Kill has witnessed both.
When he took his Northern Illinois team to Knoxville, Tenn., in 2008 to play in front of 99,500 screaming Volunteers fans at Rocky Top, the coach wondered how his players would react to such an overwhelming atmosphere.
"We weren't very smart," he said, shaking his head at the memory. "Our kids went out and stomped on the T."
OK, intentionally provoking a huge crowd and your opponent at midfield -- that's the wrong way, though Kill concedes, "They weren't intimidated by anything."
He's not entirely sure he can say the same about his current team, though "intimidated" is probably a little strong for what happened to the Gophers in front of a big, rowdy crowd at Iowa in September. More accurate is that the Gophers allowed Iowa to succeed early, and that brought the 70,500 Iowans into the game as fuel for the Hawkeyes' accelerating offense.
"We certainly didn't react very well to the crowd when we went to Iowa," Kill said. "If the crowd gets into it, [opponents] play with great enthusiasm and you can go, 'Oh, no, here comes the roller-coaster.' "
There figures to be quite the carnival atmosphere at the home finale in Memorial Stadium, where the Cornhuskers will try to keep their hold on the Legends Division lead and a Big Ten championship came berth, all while saying goodbye to seniors such as I-back Rex Burkhead -- and to retiring athletic director Tom Osborne, a Nebraska icon for decades already.
The Gophers, meanwhile, have already accomplished their No. 1 goal of qualifying for a bowl game, so emotion won't be on their side, at least not to the same degree. What, then, is left to play for?
"It's a great opportunity for our program, to take [a shot at] a good, traditional, powerhouse school," Kill said of the 16th-ranked Huskers.
It's also a chance to do something the Gophers haven't accomplished this year -- beat a team with a winning record. Of the six Gophers victims this year, only FCS-level New Hampshire is above .500; matter of fact, only one of Minnesota's past 15 victories, dating back to 2009, has come against an FBS opponent that finished the regular season with a winning record. So Minnesota, which also hasn't beaten a ranked team on the road since 2000, could use a signature victory.
"I told our players, 'This is something we need to be excited about. We need to embrace it,' " Kill said. "We get to play in Lincoln. It's a great challenge, and we should be excited."
But are they? Kill admitted that it can be difficult for a coach to be certain sometimes.
"I wish I had a microchip that I could put on every one of our kids, just to see if they're ready to play. Because you never know what's going on in there," Kill said. When they take the field "at Nebraska -- what's that microchip saying? Am I ready to play, am I excited, am I nervous -- what am I thinking? As you grow with a team, you kind of know where they're at. But we're still early in the process, and I don't know what that microchip would say."
In Philip Nelson's case, it would say he barely registers his surroundings. The 19-year-old freshman appeared unfazed by 80,500 Badgers fans at his debut in Wisconsin, and a placid, stoic demeanor seems to be his default setting.
"You can't ever tell, from play to play, what just happened the previous play," offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said of Nelson's demeanor. "No matter what, he's just on to the next play. ... At this point, I don't know how you rattle him."
Well, you can keep him off the field. Nebraska is "the best offensive football team we've played," Kill said, and slowing down a team that averages 37.4 points and 482.4 yards per game will be the day's most important factor.
The Gophers are 18-point underdogs, but Kill said that doesn't mean anything once the game starts. "Each week you see somebody win, and you go, 'How'd they beat so and so? How the hell did that happen?' "
So perhaps the Gophers should start by stomping on the giant N at midfield? "Oh, hell no," Kill said. "No, no."