If it makes the Gophers feel any better, Northwestern is banged up, too.
These two teams meet Saturday in Evanston, Ill., in the Big Ten opener, after taking different paths through their nonconference schedules.
Northwestern (4-0) upset Stanford at home and beat Duke on the road before surviving a scare Saturday night against Ball State. The Wildcats are ranked No. 16 and have been one of the Big Ten’s early surprises.
But they lost some key players in the 24-19 victory over Ball State. Safety Godwin Igwebuike suffered an unspecified upper-body injury, and his replacement, Kyle Queiro, broke an arm. Left tackle Geoff Mogus suffered a head injury.
The Gophers (3-1) can relate. Their injury list is “a mile long,” coach Jerry Kill said Sunday, after a slew of players went down in the 27-24 win over Ohio.
Kill said All-Big Ten cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun would undergo an MRI for a knee injury, adding, “Briean’s one I’m concerned about.”
Kill said senior safety Damarius Travis will remain out this week with his hamstring injury. Antonio Johnson, the other senior starter at safety, and wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky suffered concussions against Ohio. Cornerback KiAnte Hardin turned an ankle, and linebacker Cody Poock injured his ribs.
Kill said he thinks Poock has a chance to play at Northwestern, depending how quickly he heals.
“I think they’ve all got a chance [to return soon], but I don’t know about this week,” Kill said.
Aside from the injuries, the Gophers feel good about how they finished nonconference play. It wasn’t always pretty. After a competitive six-point loss to then-No. 2 TCU, the Gophers squeaked by Colorado State, Kent State and Ohio by three points apiece.
The offense sputtered badly against Kent State, but the wins over Colorado State and Ohio required long, late-fourth-quarter touchdown drives. In both cases, Mitch Leidner set aside all the criticism he’s faced and delivered in the clutch.
“Sometimes things work in mysterious ways,” Kill said. “Maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be because we’re probably going to be in [close games] down the road here.”
Kill and offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover were on a mission to get more from the offensive line after the Kent State game, and that unit performed far better against Ohio. Left tackle Jonah Pirsig played through another shoulder injury, enabling the starting quintet to stay intact.
Starting tailback Rodney Smith continued to do his thing, with 94 rushing yards and 58 receiving yards. And the Gophers introduced true freshman Shannon Brooks, who darted for 71 yards on his first three carries, including a 40-yard touchdown.
“I think Brooks was a big difference in the game,” Kill said. “I think he kind of ignited the offense a little bit in my opinion.”
With the running game back on track, Leidner did his part by completing 22 of 31 passes for a career-high 264 yards. He had completions to nine different players. Freshman Rashad Still made a leaping catch and kept a foot inbounds on a key 24-yard reception in the fourth quarter. Another freshman, Isaiah Gentry, showed his speed moments later on a catch and sprint for a 29-yard gain.
Brooks and Gentry looked like two potential new difference-makers against Ohio. By game’s end, the Gophers had rushed 36 times (for 204 yards) and passed 31 times (for 264 yards).
“I think it was pretty balanced,” Kill said. “That way it takes away from everybody loading the box, and all the stuff like Kent State did. That’s the way they’re going to stop us. By us showing some versatility in what we do, that will help us down the road, I think.”
Northwestern has the nation’s third-best scoring defense (8.8 points per game), so this is no easy way to start the Big Ten slate. But watching these Gophers, one gets the sense they like doing things the hard way.