MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – This is the week Minnesota was originally scheduled to play at North Carolina.
Instead, the Gophers are going to New Mexico State, having spent $800,000 to get out of the two-game contract with the Tar Heels because coach Jerry Kill was concerned about the confidence of his young players on the road against a formidable nonconference opponent.
Minnesota can’t be considering this an easy fill-in, though.
The Gophers revealed several areas in need of improvement in their 51-23 season-opening win over UNLV, for one. And, even more glaringly, they lost to the Aggies at home two years ago.
Here are five things to know about the game in Las Cruces on Saturday night:
UPSET NOT FORGOTTEN: New Mexico State spoiled Kill’s first home game as Minnesota coach on Sept. 10, 2011, a 28-21 victory for the Aggies that is further remembered for the seizure Kill suffered on the sideline near the end of that contest. The Gophers didn’t even lead in that game. They had first-and-10 at the Aggies 25 in the final minute but couldn’t complete a pass after that. There are a handful of players for each side who were around then, but this will mostly be an all-new matchup. Thus, New Mexico State coach Doug Martin said this week he won’t be mentioning the past as a point of motivation. The Aggies are more encouraged by the way they played in the first half last week at Texas. “I’ll tell you right now: We’re not going to beat Minnesota 30-0. Nobody is. That’s not going to happen. If we can win this football game, it’s going to be a close game,” Martin said, adding: “That was the goal at Texas, and we didn’t get it done. So reload and here we go again.”
ABOUT LAST WEEK: The Aggies led the Longhorns 7-0 with less than 2 minutes left in the second quarter before a couple of long touchdown passes put Texas in front at the half and propelled the home team to the lopsided margin that most expected. New Mexico State still had a chance to stay in it but an end zone interception throw by Andrew McDonald early in the third quarter with the Aggies trailing 21-7 spoiled that. Texas went on to win 56-7. Similarly, the Gophers were losing 13-10 to UNLV late in the first half before pulling away. They used two special teams touchdowns and another score by the defense to turn the game into a blowout, but the Rebels owned a 419-320 edge in total yards.
MINNESOTA CONNECTIONS: New Mexico State’s athletic director is McKinley Boston, who once held that title at Minnesota. The first black AD the Big Ten ever had also played for the Gophers. On the field, there’s Aggies defensive end Willie Mobley. He was a standout at Eden Prairie High School who once picked Ohio State over the Gophers. The sixth-year senior has bounced around since then, playing at Arizona last season before settling at New Mexico State, which is playing an independent schedule this year due to the dissolution of the Western Athletic Conference’s football league. The Aggies will play in the Sun Belt Conference next season. Kill, too, will face a familiar counterpart in Martin, who coached at Kent State while Kill was at Mid-American Conference rival Northern Illinois. Martin was the offensive coordinator for the Aggies in 2011 when they beat the Gophers.
ROAD RECORD: The Gophers have endured their share of upsets by opponents from lesser conferences, but most of the messes have been at home. Since 2008, they’re 4-1 on the road in non-Big Ten games. At home, they’re 10-6.
OFFENSIVE IMPROVEMENT NEEDED: Sophomore Philip Nelson rushed 12 times for a team-high 83 yards and two touchdowns, but he was off the mark on a lot of throws, finishing 10 for 22 for only 99 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Nelson didn’t sound concerned by the imbalance, though. “Whatever it takes to win, whether that’s running the ball or throwing the ball,” he said, adding: “Sometimes I might run the ball 12 times and sometimes I might run none. It all depends on how we’re reading the defense out there.”
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