MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The last thing the Minnesota Golden Gophers should have to overcome when they face New Hampshire on Saturday is overconfidence.
Sure, the Gophers are the big-city team that plays in the power conference, the kind of team that pads the nonconference schedule with cupcakes from the Football Championship Subdivision.
Only these Gophers know they can’t look down their noses at any team. Minnesota, after all, has lost to a team from the FCS three times in the last five years and is coming off an ugly victory over struggling UNLV in the season opener. The Gophers lost to North Dakota State last season and in 2007 and lost to South Dakota in 2010, three embarrassing defeats that only served to make the downtrodden program an even bigger laughingstock in the Big Ten.
Even the games they’ve won have been nail-biters, a 10-9 win over the Bison in 2006 and a three-point win over South Dakota State in 2009.
They hit rock bottom last year in Jerry Kill’s first season as head coach when they were thumped by NDSU, 37-24, two weeks after losing to big-school doormat New Mexico State.
“North Dakota State, they kicked our butt,” Kill said in his typically blunt fashion. “They physically beat us. They’re better than us. It is what it is.”
Sensing that his players didn’t take the matchup with the Bison seriously before the loss, Kill met with his leadership council this week to emphasize a simple message heading into the game against New Hampshire.
“Can’t take any team lightly,” running back Donnell Kirkwood said. “We learned that last year. … Don’t take them lightly. Go out there and play them like they’re any other team.”
If anyone understands the underdog mentality that FCS teams carry into matchups against the big boys, it’s Kill. Before he took the Gophers job last year, he spent 16 seasons coaching at small schools including Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois, and he enjoyed his fair share of upsets as well.
“As the head coach, I told them, ‘Hey, this is your deal here. It’ll put you on the map,'” Kill said. “The kids, they’re going to play their best. You’re going to get their best. So if you don’t bring yours, you’ll get in trouble.”
That’s exactly what coach Sean McDonnell is telling the Wildcats this week.
“These guys want to prove we belong,” McDonnell said on the team’s website. “Play with a little bit of a chip on your shoulder. You have an opportunity to show people you’re as good a football player, as good of a program, and you can compete with those guys.”
The Wildcats have a history of turning what is supposed to be an easy win into a long day for the big boys. They won a staggering five straight games against FBS opponents — Rutgers in 2004, Northwestern in 2006, Marshall in 2007, Army in 2008 and Ball State in 2009 — before falling to Pittsburgh in 2010.
“They’re going to come in here with a chip on their shoulder,” Minnesota quarterback MarQueis Gray said. “They feel like they should be in this type of league. But we’ve just got to take it one play at a time, don’t underestimate those guys.”
The Gophers are still stinging from getting pounded by NDSU at home last season, one of a series of losses over the last five years that have turned local fans away from a struggling program that needs all the support it can get. The student section has routinely been half-empty for games despite playing in shiny new TCF Bank Stadium.
Kill has been active on campus trying to reach out to students and entice them to come to games to give the team a home-field advantage that it simply has not had, even against those smaller schools.
“I’ve got to get out there and get people on board,” Kill said. “We have to do a whole lot of things to get (fans), and then we have to win with it; and winning solves a lot of problems. I think we all know that, but that’s not easy to do from week to week where we’re at right now either. But we keep pushing, moving forward, and you know, we look forward.”
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