This is the sort of game that Jerry Kill once relished: no-name underdog given a rare shot at the establishment, with unspoken undercurrents of you-don't-belong. The motivation is practically oozing out the players' ears, no speech necessary.
Yep, Kill once lived for games such as North Dakota State vs. Minnesota, when he was coaching a team from some off-brand football conference most Big Ten fans couldn't name. But the view isn't so great from the other sideline.
"We have everything to lose. They have nothing to lose," the Gophers coach grumbled this week. "I'd rather play somebody else."
Ironic, considering there is nowhere the estimated 10,000 Bison fans expected in sold-out TCF Bank Stadium for the season's first night game (6 p.m., BTN) would rather be.
"It's an important ballgame for us and our players. A lot of them are from the state of Minnesota," Bison coach Craig Bohl said.
More than a dozen on the two-deep depth chart, as a matter of fact, and almost all of them completely overlooked by the Gophers when they were in high school. Offensive tackle Billy Turner has similar size (6-6, 292 pounds) to current Gophers recruit Jonah Pirsig of Blue Earth, while linebacker Carlton Littlejohn of Minneapolis North and cornerback Marcus Williams of Hopkins play positions where the Gophers lack depth. Whether the decision not to recruit those players was the right one for the Big Ten program, it will certainly be on the minds of those players on Saturday.
"North Dakota State has made a living off Minnesota kids for a long time," Kill said. "So you don't have to convince me how hard those son-of-a-bucks are going to play. That's a subject that doesn't need to be discussed."
Certainly not to a coach who relates more easily to the Bison's underdog status than the Gophers' place of privilege. Kill was ignored by Division I colleges but became an all-conference linebacker at tiny Southwestern (Kansas) College back in his playing days. He knows what a powerful drug rejection can be.
"Shoot, I was told I wasn't good enough for this job," Kill said. "So hell, I'm one of those guys. You don't think I don't compete? Or don't think about that on a day-to-day basis? You bet your tail end they are going to come in here and be ready to play, and that they are going to play with a chip on their shoulder."
They'll face a Gophers team that's still trying to figure out what its strengths and weaknesses are. Quarterback MarQueis Gray has improved from week to week -- "Just imagine where he would be if he had played [quarterback] six games before now," offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover daydreamed this week -- but is still trying to get comfortable passing the ball downfield. The running game, which likely will face eight- and nine-man fronts by the Bison, has yet to contribute much, except when Gray keeps it himself.
"I've done a great job of coaching ol' MarQueis," Kill joked. "I said, 'MarQueis, now you go get us 156 yards so the people of Minnesota like me a lot more.' ... I haven't told him a thing. I told him to execute the offense, and instinctively, he's pulled it down" and run.
Defensively, the Gophers are having more success at stopping the run than the pass, which is important given NDSU's success at giving the ball to backs Sam Ojuri (240 yards in two games) and D.J. McNorton (80 yards in one game).
Many of the Gophers have played against their Bison counterparts and understand what this game means to them.
"Those guys believe they belong," offensive tackle Ed Olson said. "I would, too."
Especially given their success, both past and present. Bohl has the Bison ranked 12th nationally among FCS schools, and their 2-0 start has come by a combined margin of 98-9. They've allowed one touchdown and scored 14; once in the red zone, they have yet to fail to reach the end zone.
"No disrespect to Miami," Kill said of last week's opponent, whom the Gophers held off at the end for a 29-23 victory, "but we'll have to play better than we did against Miami to win."
Gophers fans know. Gophers fans remember. And certainly the Bison do, too.
North Dakota State left the Metrodome with a 27-21 victory in 2007 that was more dominant than the final score. A year earlier, the Gophers needed a blocked field goal to escape with a 10-9 victory. The Bison are mostly here for the $375,000 payday Minnesota will provide, but their 4-3 record against FBS foes since 2006 proves they aren't the typical nonconference weaklings that BCS teams look for.
"It's a football team that plays tremendously hard," Kill said. "They reflect their coach, a hard-nosed guy. They play that way. They do not take plays off -- that's something we can learn from."
Just not, he hopes, the hard way.