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The Gophers' defensive improvement was on display last Saturday, as linebacker Aaron Hill celebrated his third-quarter fumble recovery.

Carlos Gonzalez, Dml - Star Tribune

GOPHERS AT IOWA • 11 a.m. today • TV: ESPN2 (100.3-FM)

U working on an expected surprise

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER
  • Star Tribune
  • September 29, 2012 - 10:26 AM

The Gophers' victory over Iowa last season was such a bolt of lightning in a 1-6 (at the time) season, the NCAA changed the rules.

"The [onside] kick we used, we can't kick it anymore," special teams coach Jay Sawvel said. The NCAA "took it away."

OK, the rule change, allowing the receiving team to call for a fair catch of a spike-kicked ball, wasn't actually aimed at the Gophers, though they have recovered onside kicks in each of their back-to-back victories over the Hawkeyes.

But maybe it's for the best that the Gophers don't rely on the element of surprise in Kinnick Stadium on Saturday. Just being undefeated as the Big Ten season opens, just being competitive with their brethren, comes as surprise enough.

"I'm not sure how many people expected us to be here" in first place in the Legends Division, said Gophers coach Jerry Kill. "I can tell you this, we were picked last in the Big Ten. And rightfully so."

See, the Gophers don't mind being underdogs. It fits their nobody-believes meme, provides constant motivation, and fits nicely on an underdog-themed T-shirt several players have been wearing this year. A TV screen near the entrance to the locker room this week displayed an image of Floyd of Rosedale below the teams' records: Minnesota 4-0, Iowa 2-2. And the caption on the bottom?

"Minnesota: 7-point underdog."

Infuriating? Galvanizing? The Gophers hope so.

But this, too, is true: It remains difficult to tell, without benefit of Big Ten play, whether the Gophers' record reflects their ability or their schedule.

"We're really happy about [being 4-0], but it doesn't mean much if you can't win [Big Ten] games," said defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman, who, as the Gophers' primary run-stopper, will play a pivotal role in trying to capture Floyd for a third year in a row. "People won't believe we're different now."

Changing opinions is almost as difficult as changing the culture, which is why all of the Gophers' statistical improvement, especially on defense, is so frequently discounted. They're ranked 11th nationally in pass-efficiency defense, ninth in interceptions and, as defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys points out, would rank among the top 20 in fewest points allowed, if not for the three overtime periods at UNLV.

Even Claeys, though, takes a wait-and-see approach toward the Gophers' improvement. He doesn't see credibility on the line Saturday, in part because he isn't sure what his defense has proven yet. "I don't think you can say that until the end of the year," Claeys said. "The stats, they're good for people to talk about, but I'm more interested in where we're at in those stats at turkey time [Thanksgiving]."

He'd like them to say the Gophers can stop the run, given that the day's big challenge will be in stopping walk-on running back Mark Weisman, who went from blocking back to Heisman candidate in the space of two weeks. Weisman had two carries in Iowa's first two games but erupted for 330 yards the past two weeks, including three touchdowns in each game. He's big -- 225 pounds -- and strong, and runs in a style that, for the Gophers, bears an uncomfortable resemblance to that of Marcus Coker, who bulled his way to 252 yards against them last year.

"We won't be able to do that again and win. We've got to get enough people off their blocks in close to stop the run, without giving up the play-action pass over the top. That's really the challenge," Claeys said. "He can come downhill all he wants, but without any blocking, he's not going to get very many yards. They do a great job up front, they really do. He hardly ever gets hit before the line of scrimmage, and by the time you get that much momentum going forward, he's going to get 3 or 4 yards no matter what."

That's the challenge. Credibility, real credibility, in the form of poll votes, betting lines and actual respect, is the reward. That and a bronze pig.

"It's hard to win on the road," Claeys said. "But as long as we show improvement, keep the ball in front of us, I really believe we'll have an opportunity to win the ballgame."

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