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 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.
Nevada-Las Vegas has asked to move its season-opening game with Minnesota ahead by two days, a UNLV spokesman said Wednesday, and is waiting for an answer from the Gophers.
The game in Sam Boyd Stadium, the first ever between the Rebels and Gophers, is currently scheduled for Sept. 1, the first Saturday of the 2012 college football season. But that's the start of Labor Day weekend, UNLV director of media relations Mark Wallington said, and the school would prefer to avoid the busy weekend for its fans.
UNLV's athletic department has asked the Gophers for permission to play the game on Thursday, Aug. 30 instead, Wallington said, "and we're waiting to hear back from Minnesota." Moving the game could save Gopher fans some money, too, he pointed out, because Las Vegas fills up during long holiday weekends. Air fares and hotel rates will be considerably lower for a weekday game.
The Rebels have explored television possibilities for a Thursday game -- non-conference games are the property of the home team -- but Wallington said their desire to move the game is not contingent of finding a carrier for the game.
If the game is moved, it would mark the second time in three seasons, and fifth time in a dozen years, that the Gophers have kicked off their season on a Thursday.
D.L. Wilhite got some effective motivation last week, a boost that may have contributed to his second career sack. The catalyst? Anthony Jacobs' first sack of the season.
"Man, I hated that he got one before me," the junior defensive end joked. "I always feel like I should get every single one, so ... "
So he's hoping to add to his total today against 6-2 Michigan State, in the bright sunshine and 50-degree temperatures of Spartan Stadium, and do it before any of his teammates.
Wilhite doesn't really mind that Jacobs, the senior from Northfield who now has 5.5 career sacks, or any of his teammates get to the quarterback first -- just as long as someone does. The 2-6 Gophers are last in the Big Ten with eight sacks, and Wilhite believes the Gophers are within reach of plenty more.
"It's been bittersweet this season," he said of his two sacks, one against Michigan's second-string line and last week's more crucial takedown of Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg, a 7-yard loss that contributed to a missed field goal. "Honestly, the total [number of sacks] should be way higher. For me, it feels good to get one, but the number should be five or six. I've got to get better at finishing."
Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins has been sacked 13 times this season, four of them last week at Nebraska, so the Gophers know it's possible. But Cousins has a reputation for quick decisions and getting rid of the ball, so it won't be easy.
"It's a big challenge for us, the entire month," he said of Minnesota's upcoming schedule, which includes Wisconsin's Russell Wilson next week. "We're playing some great quarterbacks. That's what makes it fun."
One pregame note: Jordan Wettstein is working on field-goal kicking, with Chris Hawthorne not on the field at the moment. Looks like the reigning Big Ten special teams player of the week will get his second career start.
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