Many boosters might disagree with me, a man who has covered the University of Minnesota’s sports teams for 71 years, but I think the TCU game on Thursday will be the biggest opening game in the history of Gophers football since Minnesota began the 1968 season facing O.J. Simpson and USC.
The Gophers were coming off a tie for the 1967 Big Ten title with Indiana and Purdue, but they didn’t go to the Rose Bowl because Minnesota had been there more recently than Indiana. USC beat Indiana 14-3 in the Rose Bowl and won the national championship, and the Gophers believed they could have beaten the Trojans.
The 1968 game at Memorial Stadium, with USC ranked No. 2 and the Gophers No. 16, was a great one. Simpson rushing for 236 yards and four TDs. The Gophers took a 10-point lead in the first quarter and led 20-16 midway through the fourth before eventually falling 29-20.
What Gophers coach Jerry Kill has done the past two seasons, with back-to-back records of 8-5 and going to bowl games — including a New Year’s Day bowl game last season — are quite the accomplishments when you realize the Gophers haven’t won a Big Ten football title in nearly 50 years.
As of Wednesday afternoon, 40 tickets remained for the TCU game at TCF Bank Stadium, so it’s the first sellout in more than 20-some years. Everything about this clash is sensational compared with what has been the story of Gophers football in recent years.
The crowd should be the most involved in years, and could play a big factor if the Gophers score an upset over TCU, a 16 ½-point favorite. For the Gophers to have a chance, they have to do a few things. They can’t turn the ball over, like they did five times a year ago when they lost 30-7 at TCU. Mitch Leidner can’t throw three interceptions like last year. And the most important part is that the Gophers secondary needs to live up to its great reputation of stopping maybe the best passing attack in the country, featuring Heisman Trophy candidate Trevone Boykin, who passed for 258 yards and two TDs against the Gophers last year, and wide receiver Josh Doctson, who caught both of those TD passes.
Deep down in Kill’s heart, I have to believe, because of my close relationship with him, that he thinks the Gophers can beat anybody in the Big Ten and is the best team by far that he has coached.
On the other hand, some media analysts who follow TCU are predicting a score of 41-14 in favor of the Horned Frogs.
Kill knows challenge
Because of his close relationship with TCU coach Gary Patterson, Kill is practically an expert on the Horned Frogs and knows just how tough they will be.
“Well, TCU is ranked No. 2 in the country for a reason,” Kill said. “They return pretty much everybody on offense. They have a lot of speed. Gary is really strong on the defensive side of the ball, and they play great defense. We had five turnovers last year and didn’t play very good, and they’ve got to come to our place, which makes a difference. It’s a lot easier to play at home than it is on the road. Hopefully we can use that to our advantage, and I know we’re going to have a full house, and I hope we have standing room only. It should be a great evening to watch college football.”
Kill also talked about the combination of Boykin and his wide receivers.
“You come to the game and you’re going to see the guy that right now is the lead candidate for the Heisman Trophy,” he said. “He’s a great athlete, he’s a great throwing quarterback with a strong arm, but also can move with his feet. We’ll have our work cut out for us, but I know our secondary and our defense is looking forward to the challenge.
“Both of their outside guys are 10.2, 10.3 100-meter guys and they run track. They’ll be the fastest receiving corps that we’ll face all year, by far.”
While there have been reports that the TCU defense is hobbled because of some injuries, Kill isn’t quite buying into that.
“Don’t ever believe what Gary Patterson tells you, I can tell you that,” he said. “He’s always going to say stuff like that. But they’ll always be good on defense as long as he’s there. But I think our kids have worked hard. We had a good practice [Tuesday], we’re up [Wednesday] morning as a staff game-planning even more for what we need to do in practice this afternoon. Our kids are excited about playing, there’s no question about that.”
Offensive line key
Kill said if the Gophers are going to win, their offensive line is going to have to control TCU’s great defensive front.
“Offensive line-wise, we feel good about it,” he said. “I think the biggest question we have is with TCU’s speed and strength, how are we going to hold up, certainly with pass protection. But [offensive coordinator Matt] Limegrover has done a good job with those guys, and they’ll have to play well to win. The game is going to be won up front, it always is, and then big plays. We can’t give them a bunch of big plays, and we have to make some big plays. We have to make more big plays than we did a year ago. We have the capabilities to do it, but we have to prove it on game day.”
Kill was asked if it helped that the Gophers played better in the second half last year against TCU.
“We did better than we did in the first half, but you know, we still didn’t play very well,” he said. “They were the reason we didn’t play very well. I think speed-wise and athletic-wise, we weren’t ready for it. You can tell kids about it, but until they see it, it doesn’t matter. It probably helped us going into the Ohio State game, because Ohio State has that kind of athletic ability and speed and we played Ohio State pretty well. We made a couple mistakes. It’s going to be a game that will be similar to that. We’re going to have to be ready to play. But it is the first game for both of us and that always is a big deal in the first game.”
Does Kill think the crowd can play a factor?
“There’s no doubt about that,” he said. “They do everything in a fast-paced huddle and the louder our stadium is, the better it is for us. It’s an advantage. You call that home-field advantage and there’s no question about that.”
You want my opinion? The Gophers can win this game if the crowd gets involved every time TCU gets the ball and makes it tough for Boykin, their great quarterback, to operate.
• Minnesota was supposed to play South Dakota State instead of TCU, and it cost Minnesota $400,000 to get out of that game and replace SDSU with TCU, which covered that cost. The Gophers also paid $800,000 to get out of a scheduled 2013 game with North Carolina.
Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on 830-AM at 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. firstname.lastname@example.org