MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — MarQueis Gray had grown all too familiar with dragging himself out of bed on Sunday mornings and heading t0 Minnesota’s team meeting room for a film session that was almost always filled with mistakes, missteps and defeat.
So even though the Golden Gophers haven’t played the stiffest competition to open the season in UNLV and New Hampshire, Gray has enjoyed walking into the football facility on campus the first two weeks knowing that he was going to see some good things on the screen in front of him.
“It’s more of a good feeling to wake up on Sunday when you win because you know you’re going to have a good film session, a good chemistry, a good feeling around the complex with the team,” Gray said. “If you do lose, I don’t feel like getting up or anything.”
Minnesota hosts Western Michigan (1-1) on Saturday, with a chance to start 3-0 for the first time since 2008. It’s difficult to tell just how far these Gophers have come in their second season under coach Jerry Kill given their opponents to date. The attitude around a team that has been a Big Ten doormat for years, however, has exponentially improved.
“You can sense the energy and that confidence going through this complex,” Gray said. “That’s one thing we’re looking forward to going into this weekend is being confident, having fun and getting excited for a chance to be 3-0.”
Western Michigan likes to use its pass-heavy, fast-paced offense to catch unsuspecting opponents flat-footed. After a rough opener against Illinois, the Broncos got rolling in a 52-21 win over Eastern Illinois and come into TCF Bank Stadium with the 13th-ranked passing offense in the nation.
The Gophers defense should be ready for them. Kill spent three seasons in the MAC as coach at Northern Illinois, so he is very familiar with Bill Cubit’s offense. Kill went 2-1 against Cubit while he was at Northern Illinois, the last meeting a 28-21 victory in 2010 before he left to take over at Minnesota. He also coached against Western in 2005 when he was at Southern Illinois, a 34-28 loss.
“Offensively under Coach Cubit, they’ve always been tremendous, throwing the ball for over 300 yards a game, a football team that’s going to be aggressive, attack you and stretch you on the perimeters and do a great job,” Kill said. “He’s a great play caller, and we have a great deal of respect for them.”
All the passing that the Broncos do will give the Gophers more of a chance to showcase their improved pass rush. They have six sacks in the first two games after managing just 19 last year. Ra’Shede Hageman leads the way with three sacks.
“I’m excited,” Hageman said. “Just going over film and seeing how many times he throws the ball, we’re obviously trying to get to the ball. I’m very excited.”
If there is a difference in the Broncos offense this year, it’s that all those passes that usually wind up in the hands of receivers are being spread around much more evenly by quarterback Alex Carder. Junior receiver Jaime Wilson is the team’s leading pass-catcher, but the Broncos are a little thin behind him, which means the running backs and tight ends are getting much more involved.
Tight end Blake Hammond caught two touchdown passes last week, and Carder has completed a pass to 14 different players over the first two games.
Cubit said Kill has kept the same coordinators and system he used at Northern Illinois. But that doesn’t mean the game will be easier.
“They play hard and they will get after you in a hurry,” Cubit said.
If Western Michigan can steal one on Saturday, the season starts to shape up pretty nicely. The Broncos have three straight home games coming up against UConn, Toledo and Massachusetts.
“Getting this win would be great,” Hammond said. “It would be a great platform for those next three games.”
The Gophers host Syracuse after this one, but even at 2-0 and brimming with confidence, they remember the monumental struggles they’ve gone through over the last five years. So they’re not taking anything for granted.
“I think they’re starting to understand where we’re at and what you have to do,” Kill said. “I think they understand we have no room for error because we’ve still got a lot of work to do.”
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