MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — This isn’t the typical lower-tier-team-meets-major-conference-program matchup that takes place all over the country in September.
North Dakota State’s series with Minnesota sure doesn’t fit the mold of the small school simply satisfied with the exposure and experience of playing in a big-time stadium and the Bowl Championship Series member bolstering its record with an easy win.
When the Bison play the Gophers, all bets are off due to the competitive nature of this regional rivalry.
NDSU’s first game at Minnesota as an FCS team was in 2006. The Metrodome was packed, about half-filled with Bison fans, for a remarkably exciting 10-9 game with four missed field goals. The Gophers blocked one as time ran out to preserve the victory.
They lost to NDSU in the same setting the following season, 27-21.
“That was actually my recruiting visit,” Gophers defensive tackle Brandon Kirksey said, smiling. “I was still committed to Minnesota, but I was like, ‘Whoa, they just lost.’ … It kind of burns me a little bit.”
The teams didn’t play the next three years, but Minnesota barely beat FCS foe South Dakota State in 2009 and lost to another one, South Dakota, last season.
This year, the Gophers (1-2) have already been beaten at home by New Mexico State, often one of the weakest teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision. The Bison (2-0), now eligible for the FCS playoffs, have their eyes on a national title.
“This year we are deeper than we ever have been,” NDSU coach Craig Bohl said. “That’s going to help us. We’re as well-fortified as what we’ve been since I’ve been our head coach. How that translates, we’re going to find out.”
When Gophers coach Jerry Kill said his team will have to play better to beat North Dakota State than it did the previous week in a 29-23 win over Miami of Ohio, he wasn’t exaggerating as coaches often do to pump up an opponent.
“They do not take plays off. That’s something that we can learn from here at the University of Minnesota,” Kill said.
Yes, the Big Ten coach said his team can learn from the FCS team, and he was serious.
NDSU right tackle Paul Cornick was a redshirt in 2007 when the Bison took down the Gophers.
“We had a lot of confidence going into that game,” Cornick said. “We knew that it didn’t take a miracle for us to beat them, and we have the same confidence this year.”
Gophers left tackle Ed Olson was at that game, too, as a junior at Mahtomedi High School.
“We’re going to try not to do that,” Olson said. “We’re going to come out with fire and match their intensity.”
When the Bison first moved up from Division II, playing the Gophers — the FBS team from the border state — was essentially their Super Bowl. Oh, this is still a big deal, but losing this game won’t hurt their national championship chase. Missouri Valley Conference play begins next week.
“You can spin this thing all kinds of different ways. We’re going to have our guys hopping on the bus, go down there and give the very best we can,” Bohl said. “There’s going to be a great deal of emotion, we recognize that, but this game is going to be decided on execution. We’ve got to face the fact we’re playing a Big Ten school and the level of competition rises.”
The emotional aspect of this matchup is arguably the biggest part, given that roughly half of NDSU’s roster is filled with Minnesota-raised players who didn’t get recruited by the Gophers.
“It’s going to be a big game, and our guys are hyped for it,” said Cornick, who’s from Orono, a suburb of Minneapolis. “For some guys there will always be that chip on their shoulder, but NDSU was a great choice for me and it’s worked out wonderfully. We’ve established a program here where we have a lot of pride.”
The Bison fans carry that same pride, whether they’re one of the thousands of alumni living in the Twin Cities area or part of the caravan coming east down Interstate 94 for the four-hour drive from Fargo.
Though NDSU is a well-established university of 14,000 students with a strong history in sports, it will never be of the same stature of Minnesota, and the differences aren’t lost on the Bison and their supporters.
“Shoot, I was told I wasn’t good enough for the job. So, hell, I’m one of those guys,” Kill said. “You don’t think I don’t compete or I don’t think about that from a day-to-day basis? So you bet your tail end they are going to come in here and be ready to play, and they are going to play with a chip on their shoulder.”
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