After Thursday’s loss to TCU, the Gophers spent Labor Day weekend watching what turned into a decidedly mixed Week 1 for the Big Ten.
No. 1 Ohio State pounded Virginia Tech, and unranked Northwestern upset No. 21 Stanford. But the conference had several hiccups, including Temple beating Penn State, and Nebraska losing on a Hail Mary to BYU.
The Gophers seemed to reinforce their status as potential Big Ten West contenders with their six-point loss to TCU, although the Horned Frogs slipped to No. 3 in Tuesday’s AP poll. Alabama climbed to No. 2 after overpowering Wisconsin 35-17.
“I think people should understand how good of a football team we have after sticking with TCU because they’re better than they were last year,” Gophers quarterback Mitch Leidner said. “And so are we.”
To prove they’re better than last year’s 8-5 squad, the Gophers will need to survive tough tests like the one coming Saturday at Colorado State.
The Rams went 10-3 last year, including wins over Colorado and Boston College, and clobbered Savannah State 65-13 in Saturday’s opener.
“They’ve got a lot of people back, certainly on the defensive side of the ball,” Gophers coach Jerry Kill said. “They’ve got a tremendous receiver [Rashard Higgins], a tremendous tight end [Kivon Cartwright]. They’ve got great skill, and we’re going there. So we’ve got our work cut out for us.”
Oddsmakers pegged the Gophers as early six-point favorites, even though they need to play in Fort Collins’ 5,000-feet altitude. Colorado State has won nine consecutive home games at 32,500-seat Hughes Stadium, dating to 2013.
Gophers defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys had his troops preparing for Colorado State’s offense since the first week of training camp, knowing how challenging this would be. But he hardly seems concerned about the altitude.
“I think that’s overrated myself,” he said. “… We ain’t there long enough for it to bother us. It won’t be a factor.”
The bigger factors will be how Colorado State continues to respond with a new head coach, a new quarterback and new systems.
When Jim McElwain left to become Florida’s new coach, the Rams hired Mike Bobo, who’d been the offensive coordinator at Georgia.
Bobo inherited seven returning starters on offense and eight on defense, but the Rams had to replace quarterback Garrett Grayson, who broke the school passing record before becoming a third-round pick by the New Orleans Saints.
The new quarterback is third-year sophomore Nick Stevens, who completed 20 of 28 passes for 289 yards and five touchdowns against Savannah State.
Running a no-huddle offense, Colorado State scored six of its nine touchdowns in one minute or less. But it’s worth noting that Savannah State is an FCS (formerly Division I-AA) team riding a 22-game losing streak. That includes a 61-7 rout in last year’s opener against Middle Tennessee State, which suffered an 11-point loss to the Gophers one week later.
Asked how different the Rams looked on film Saturday compared to last year, Kill said, “Can’t really tell off their first game. The opponent they played hadn’t won a game [since 2013], and Coach [Bobo] is a smart man. He’s not going to show a whole lot.
“So you’ve got to go back to Georgia where he was offensively. You’ve got to go back where the defensive coordinator [Tyson Summers] was at Central Florida.”
Colorado State switched to the 4-3 defense under Summers and recorded 16½ tackles for a loss Saturday. But it wasn’t all smiles for the Rams, who lost four fumbles on offense.
One key storyline to follow will be Higgins’ availability, as he missed Tuesday’s practice with a sprain. He led the nation with 1,750 receiving yards, 17 receiving touchdowns and 18.2 yards per catch.
Then again, TCU has several top-notch receivers and Heisman candidate Trevone Boykin, and the Gophers allowed 23 points, less than half of the Horned Frogs’ average from a year ago.
“As far as a whole package [with the passing game],” Claeys said, “that’s as tough as it’ll get for us all year long.”