College football fans wait eight months for this. Players grind through hellish workouts in quiet gyms. Coaches go bleary-eyed from studying so much film.
Summer wanes and two-a-day practices begin. The marching band sweats through spat camp. The cheerleaders perfect their routines. The stadium gates swing open, fans find their seats, and it’s time: the players finally get to snake through the tunnel and charge the bright-green field.
But some openers are more captivating than others. Last year, with thousands of empty seats, the Gophers started with a 42-20 victory over Eastern Illinois. Two days later, they joined 4.7 million viewers around the country, watching Wisconsin kick off against LSU.
“Guys on our team were ticked because they wanted to be the ones playing one of the best teams in the country,” quarterback Mitch Leidner said. “Now this year we have the opportunity.”
The usual pomp and circumstance won’t be the only draw Thursday night when the lights flicker on. Every stadium seat will have a fan, an ESPN audience will bring many more, and most all will know about the opponent: No. 2 TCU and Heisman Trophy candidate Trevone Boykin.
TCU is the highest-ranked opponent the Gophers have faced since 2006, when they lost 44-0 to No. 1 Ohio State and eventual Heisman winner Troy Smith. The last time Minnesota knocked off a top-five opponent came in 1999, Glen Mason’s third season, when Dan Nystrom’s field goal as time expired gave the Gophers a 24-23 victory at second-ranked Penn State.
A victory this time, in front of what could be the largest crowd in TCF Bank Stadium’s six-year history, likely would catapult the unranked Gophers into the Associated Press Top 25, where they appeared for one week last November at No. 22. It would be the biggest building block yet for Jerry Kill in his fifth year as Minnesota’s coach.
“I think about [beating TCU] all the time,” senior receiver KJ Maye said. “I daydream about it.”
A second chance
Last year’s game at TCU was a nightmare for the Gophers. Leidner came in questionable after spraining the medial collateral ligament in his left knee. He played, and TCU put constant pressure on the sophomore by punishing Minnesota’s offensive line. Leidner threw three interceptions and lost one fumble. Playing with a sprained ankle, David Cobb rushed for a season-low 41 yards on 15 carries, including one lost fumble.
The five turnovers were crushing. TCU’s three touchdown drives went 18, 27 and 39 yards.
Boykin still was an unknown commodity then, as was TCU’s new “Air Raid” offense. Wide receiver Josh Doctson caught two touchdown passes, including a one-handed grab over Jalen Myrick that was the No. 1 play on the ESPN “SportsCenter” top 10.
TCU led 24-0 with nine minutes remaining in the second quarter. The final was 30-7.
Few could have known that would be TCU’s lowest-scoring output of the season. As the Horned Frogs piled up points (including 58 in a loss to Baylor and 82 in a victory over Texas Tech), the Gophers’ performance didn’t look so bad.
“Even though we gave up 30, we felt good about the way we defended them 80 percent of the time,” defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said. “The other 20 percent I think we can improve on because we have video.”
A better chance?
The Horned Frogs have 10 starters back from an offense that ranked second in the nation in scoring with 46.5 points per game. But the defense, which ranked eighth nationally (19.0 points allowed per game), entered August needing to replace six of its top seven tacklers.
TCU coach Gary Patterson also told reporters this week that two defensive players would miss the Minnesota game because of unspecified reasons. James McFarland, the team’s returning sacks leader and MVP of the Peach Bowl, was not listed on the team’s depth chart, nor was four-star cornerback recruit DeShawn Raymond.
At middle linebacker, TCU will start Mike Freeze, a true freshman who missed his senior season of high school last year because of a dislocated shoulder. Patterson has said Freeze does things you can’t teach, but it’s a big job in TCU’s vaunted 4-2-5 defense.
Look for the Gophers to try to keep Freeze and company guessing with pre-snap motion and varied formations.
“We didn’t have a bad day offensively last year just because they did a bunch of stuff that we couldn’t handle from an assignment standpoint,” Gophers offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. “We just didn’t play well. We had five turnovers.”
Patterson knew that wasn’t Minnesota’s best day.
“I really watched them at the end of the year, and they probably played Ohio State as well as anybody did, even better than anybody did in the playoffs,” TCU’s 15th-year coach said. “We know we’ll probably even play a better Minnesota team than we watched on film at the end of the season because of recruiting and guys growing up.”
A special chance
Kill and Patterson have made it clear they never wanted to play this two-game series, with those decisions made above the two friends’ heads. Kill was in the wedding party when Patterson married his wife, Kelsey. Beyond that, Kill and Patterson have worked closely for decades, sharing ideas and strategies.
Claeys has said that about 90 percent of his defensive philosophy traces to Patterson.
“As soon as the game’s over, I’m going to be the happiest son of a gun there is,” Claeys said. “I’m just telling you because we get our friendships back with some of those guys.”
But Kill also knows this is a special chance.
“Throw the head coaches out — we don’t play,” Kill said. “It’s a great game for the state of Minnesota.”
The Gophers are 16 ½-point underdogs.
“What have we got to lose?” Kill added. “We just go out there and have some fun and play hard and see what happens.”