The Gophers open the season Aug. 28 against Eastern Illinois, a team from the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA), but coach Jerry Kill is hardly taking the Panthers lightly.
On Tuesday, Kill said Eastern Illinois is the same caliber team, athletically, as North Dakota State, the three-time defending FCS national champion.
Eastern Illinois, Tony Romo’s alma mater, went 12-2 last year, including a 40-19 victory at San Diego State, but lost to Towson in the FCS quarterfinals. The Panthers must replace quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, a second-round pick by the New England Patriots.
The quarterback battle is between two transfers — Jalen Whitlow (from Kentucky) and Andrew Manley (from New Mexico State). Whitlow made 15 career starts at Kentucky, completing 61.5 percent of his passes, but first-year Eastern Illinois coach Kim Dameron has yet to name a starter.
“We’ll let the University of Minnesota football team figure that out,” Dameron told the Mattoon (Ill.) Journal Gazette.
The Gophers are 2-1 against FCS opponents under Kill. They defeated Western Illinois 29-12 last year and crushed New Hampshire 44-7 two years ago, but they lost to North Dakota State in 2011.
The Gophers also lost twice against FCS opponents under Tim Brewster, to NDSU in 2007 and to South Dakota in 2010.
“I know our kids understand it,” Kill said. “Of course, you can go back to North Dakota State — you better understand it. North Dakota State beat [Kansas] State last year. So a lot of people don’t understand that in I-AA, they have a lot of good players. Just look at the NFL.”
Lauer, Pirsig updates
Gophers left tackle Ben Lauer has a high ankle sprain and won’t be full-go for practice until at least Sunday. It sounds like the 6-7, 315-pound Lauer is questionable for the opener.
“He’s slowly getting back,” Kill said. “He did individual stuff today, but those things take a while. And certainly, where we’re at now, we’re not going to take any chances. He’s progressed a long way in three or four days. I anticipate him hopefully practicing Sunday, but we’ll see.”
If Lauer can’t play, the Gophers likely would start Jonah Pirsig at right tackle, with Josh Campion sliding over to left tackle. Pirsig recently missed three or four days with a groin injury, but he was full-go at practice Tuesday.
Tommy Olson has been wearing No. 58 in maroon and gold since he was a kid. The jerseys and number belonged to his dad, Ed, a three-time letterwinner for the Gophers in the early 1980s.
The number and jersey finally belong to Tommy. The Gophers senior center will snap the ball wearing No. 58 nearly 32 years after his father wore it at the same position.
He’s the third Olson to wear the number for the Gophers. Older brother Eddie also wore it on the offensive line during the past four seasons.
“I’ve been waiting,” Tommy said. “Once I heard I could get it this year, I was so excited and so honored and can’t wait to play in it.”
Passed down with the number is a No. 58 necklace. Eddie has worn the chain for the majority of the past eight years while the two played together at Mahtomedi High School and then Minnesota.
The first year Tommy wore No. 58 in high school, he received his scholarship offer from the Gophers. He’s hoping for more good fortune as he assumes the responsibility of No. 58 for a second time.
“It’s a nice little tradition,” he said. “Maybe something special can happen this year like a Rose Bowl or something.”
Staff writer Jason Gonzalez contributed to this report.