Joe Christensen covered Major League Baseball for 15 years, including three seasons at the Baltimore Sun and eight at the Star Tribune, before switching to the college football beat. He’s a Faribault, Minn., native who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1996. He covered Jim Wacker’s Gophers for the Minnesota Daily and also wrote about USC, UCLA and the Rose Bowl for the Riverside Press-Enterprise before getting this chance to cover football again.
Email Joe to talk about the Gophers.
Jerry Kill was particularly lively and upbeat at his weekly press conference on Tuesday, which is probably no surprise given the Gophers' 1-0 record.
The coach said he noticed the same attitude in his players, too, during last Thursday's 30-27 triple-overtime win in Las Vegas. Even when UNLV took a lead on Minnesota, even when the Rebels scored touchdowns on their first two overtime drives, the Gophers never developed a "here we go again" feeling on the sideline. "Last year, that's all I saw," Kill said.
The Gophers had a good practice on Monday, he said, and are well along in preparing for Saturday morning's home opener against New Hampshire. They lost receiver Jamel Harbison to a knee injury during the game, but the Gophers came through the game otherwise healthy.
We'll have more coverage of the Gophers in Wednesday's Star Tribune.
By PHIL MILLER
I'm roughly halfway to Las Vegas as I write this, and there are roughly a dozen passengers on this flight wearing Gophers gear, including a couple of familiar faces from the sidelines at practice.
(Brief aside: The effects of the drought gripping the Midwest and Rocky Mountains are plainly evident when you fly over the country; every lake has a ring around it where the water used to be.)
Later flights today and tomorrow will undoubtedly have a lot more. For Minnesota football fans looking to build a vacation around a Gophers football game, probably no game in several years has been more anticipated than this one. No offense to West Lafayette or East Lansing, but there are a few more things to do in Las Vegas when the game is over.
That's why it's hardly a surprise that the university sold out its allotment of 3,000 tickets, Jason LaFrenz, the university's assistant athletics director for marketing and ticket sales, said last week. There will be a relatively large contingent of Gopher fans in Sam Boyd Stadium tomorrow night. I'll be watching for maroon-and-gold in the casinos the next two days.
"I know that we've got a huge following going out. I've got all kinds of emails and phone calls and good luck (messages)," coach Jerry Kill said Tuesday. "We had a huge following when we went out to USC. There's not a question about how passionate our fans are -- we've just got to make sure we put a good product out there."
Fans who traveled to Los Angeles and Las Vegas these past two years don't have much to get excited about for the foreseeable future. And truthfully, considering the downtrodden history of UNLV football, even this game wouldn't be a particularly big draw if the Rebels didn't play in Las Vegas. (There is added intrigue to the game, given that it's the opener, but that's changing, too; the Gophers will open at home for at least the next four years.)
Next year, the Gophers will visit Chapel Hill, N.C., for the last non-conference road matchup with a BCS-level opponent for awhile.
Kill, who explored canceling the contract with the Tar Heels earlier this year, has made it clear that the Big Ten schedule is difficult enough without adding extra hurdles during September, so the Gophers have joined the rest of major college football by sticking to home games against lesser conferences. It's nothing unique to Minnesota, far from it; but as a college football fan, it's a shame that the practice of playing your peers around the country is dying out.
The trend means no road games at all for the Gophers in September 2014, and trips to Colorado State in 2015 and Miami of Ohio in 2016. Admittedly, Fort Collins, Colo., is beautiful and I always enjoyed covering games there, but it's not like playing USC, is it?
Kill joked last week that he'd prefer to play 12 home games, and he's practically getting his wish this year. Once the Gophers arrive home from Las Vegas early Friday morning, they won't leave the Central time zone again this season. It's the first time since 1961 that they have no games on the schedule in the Eastern time zone.
Of course, that season ended with a game two time zones away -- in Pasadena on New Year's Day. I'm guessing that's a road trip that Kill would approve of.
Jerry Jones built his billion-dollar football palace for his Dallas Cowboys. But college football is reaping the benefits of Cowboys Stadium, too, in the form of better scheduling.
In this era of playing soft preseason schedules in order to guarantee winning records, you have to appreciate any attempt to get elite schools to play each other. Johnson has done it by creating the Cowboy Classic and inviting Top 10 teams to play in his stadium -- first Oklahoma-BYU, then TCU-Oregon State, and last year, LSU-Oregon.
This year, it's Michigan vs. Alabama, in one of the season's most intriguing games featuring a Big Ten team. Alabama is ranked second in the nation, the Wolverines are eighth, and they'll open the season in Arlington, Texas, on Sept. 1.
What's notable about that is that it makes Michigan one of only two conference schools to schedule two non-conference games away from home. Only Indiana will travel twice, with games scheduled at Massachusetts and Navy.
The Wolverines are also one of only three Big Ten teams to open its season off campus. The Gophers travel to UNLV next Thursday, the fourth straight year they open on the road (a trend that you can bet Jerry Kill intends to halt), and Northwestern goes to Syracuse for its first game.
Ohio State takes the opposite approach -- the Buckeyes will play eight home games this year, and not travel to any non-conference game.
For the most part, the rest of the league has chosen a reasonably challenging road opponent, in most cases necessary to attract reciprocal home game in a future season. The Gophers may have the worst road opponent in UNLV, coming off a 2-10 season -- unless it's Michigan State, which plays at Central Michigan. Or Indiana, traveling to FCS-level UMass.
The rest of the Big Ten's non-conference road games: Illinois at Arizona State; Iowa vs. Northern Illinois at Soldier Field in Chicago; Michigan at Notre Dame; Nebraska at UCLA; Penn State at Virginia; Purdue at Notre Dame; and Wisconsin at Oregon State.
It's 10 days until the football season begins, and UNLV apparently still hasn't decided who its quarterback will be.
The Rebels scrimmaged on Saturday, and it sounds as though redshirt freshman Nick Sherry, who most observers expected to win the job as camp opened, had enough problems to give coach Bobby Hauck reason to hold off on naming a starter. According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Sherry completed only one of his first eight passes, with one interception. He improved as the day went on and finished 7-for-16, including a 32-yard touchdown pass.
Junior Caleb Herring, who spent most of last season as UNLV's starter, was 7-for-8 with a 33-yard touchdown pass.
Hauck had hinted that he wanted to choose a starter by now, but the Rebels will scrimmage again on Wednesday, so it sounds like the job is still open.
"We've got to let those guys go some more," Hauck told the R-J. "They're competing hard. You don't want to be too preliminary when they're both doing a nice job."
I suppose that's true, but the Gophers, with MarQueis Gray an unquestioned No. 1, can tell them how nice it is when the most important position is locked up before camp opens.
UNLV, which went 2-10 last season, will play host to the Gophers (3-9 a year ago) in the season-opener on Aug. 30. Minnesota opened as 12-point favorites in most Nevada sports books, but the Gophers are now favored by eight points.
The Rebels, by the way, are training in Ely, Nev., about 200 miles north (and 2,000 feet of elevation) of Las Vegas, in order to escape the city's 100-degree temperatures. They'll return to campus after Wednesday's scrimmage.
The Gophers have agreed to open the 2012 season two days early.
At Nevada-Las Vegas' request, the Gophers will play UNLV in Sam Boyd Stadium on Thursday, Aug. 30, rather than the originally scheduled Sept. 1 kickoff.
"It is customary in college football for the visiting team to do its best to accommodate these types of requests," Marc Ryan, senior associate athletics director, said in a statement. "Coach [Jerry] Kill felt that there were a number of positives for our program in agreeing to the move."
Among those is a chance for some TV exposure, if the Rebels can reach an agreement with a carrier. UNLV has made contact with some broadcasters, director of media relations Mark Wallington said last week, but has not yet agreed to a deal.
Kickoff time has not been determined, but the Gophers wanted the new date announced quickly in order to minimize the impact on fans planning to travel to Las Vegas for the first game between Minnesota and UNLV.
It's the fifth time since 2001 that the Gophers have opened their season on a Thursday. Minnesota's home opener against New Hampshire is scheduled for Sept. 8.
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