When the Gophers open their football season Thursday night at TCF Bank Stadium, it might as well be a Halloween game instead of a nonconference meeting with South Dakota State.
“You’re scheming for ghosts,” coach P.J. Fleck said.
OK, so no actual supernatural activity here. The spooky specters are the Jackrabbits’ unknowns coming off last year’s 10-3 finish, mainly at quarterback and offensive coordinator. Redshirt freshman J’Bore Gibbs will replace graduated Taryn Christion, South Dakota State’s all-time leading passer. Offensive line coach Jason Eck has taken on coordinator duties from Eric Eidsness, who moved on to Northern Illinois.
Joe Rossi said as a defensive coordinator, he has never liked first games. Especially against an unfamiliar FCS squad that’s one of the picks to win that level.
“You’ve got a new coordinator, and you’ve got a new quarterback. So those always give you a little bit of an uneasy feeling,” Rossi said, adding with no film to evaluate, the Gophers must focus more internally. “… There will be things early in the game that they’ve done that we haven’t seen. Then you have to get on the sideline. You need to talk, and you need to adjust.”
The Jackrabbits defense also concerns offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca. He said the team reminds him of one of his coaching stops at Delaware.
“The strength of their defense would be in their front seven. Their linebackers are pretty good. And their defensive line was dominant last year,” Ciarrocca said, noting South Dakota State might not have the depth to play a team like the Gophers every week. “… But for one game one time, I know that they’re capable of playing against us and playing well against us.”
Fleck warned specifically about South Dakota State’s receiving corps, linebacker Christian Rozeboom and kicker Chase Vinatieri.
Experience up front
Four Gophers starting offensive linemen are back from the end of last year, with sophomore Blaise Andries (6-6, 325 pounds), junior Conner Olson (6-5, 305), redshirt freshman Curtis Dunlap Jr. (6-5, 345) and sophomore Daniel Faalele (6-9, 400). Junior Sam Schlueter (6-6, 325) won the left tackle position in camp.
That size and experience has Ciarrocca looking forward to this season.
“I want to see them play as one and be dominant,” he said. “Come off the ball and knock people off the ball. All indications are in training camp that they’re ready to do that.”