Minnesota is 4-0 and it faces Iowa to start the Big Ten season. You’ve heard this one before.
Last season, the Gophers marched into Iowa City with the same record, with the same spiraling aspirations and left Kinnick Stadium sans the Pig, the Floyd of Rosedale Trophy that goes to the winner of Iowa-Minnesota. Iowa manhandled the Gophers to the tune of 7.28 yards a carry running the ball.
Why should this year be different?
“I think we’re a bigger, stronger team than we were a year ago, but so are they,” UM coach Jerry Kill told Minneapolis media Sunday. “I think they’re a much better team than they were a year ago, without a doubt.”
Say what you want about the Gophers first four opponents — which have a collective 5-10 record with wins over Hampton and Quincy — the team has faced down some heavy-handed adversity.
First, Kill suffered a seizure on the sidelines two weeks ago during Minnesota’s victory over Western Illinois. It was the fourth time in three seasons that Kill, who suffers from epilepsy, missed a game because of the condition. Last week, hundreds of people gathered outside TCF Bank Stadium for a rally organized by the Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota.
Kill advocates for understanding of the disease, but this is football season and that’s business time. “”I’ve done talked about all those other things enough,” Kill said last week. “This game’s not about a head football coach. This game is about the players and that’s how we’ll approach it today.”
The Gophers deal with it, as though they’ve drilled for the situation.
“We’re used to the routine, as bad as that sounds,” defensive back Brock Vereen said. “There’s a sense of confidence in our staff and knowing that as bad as it may look sometimes, he’s going to be fine.”
OK, that’s no fun. That’s some real adversity. You know what else? Minnesota lost its starting quarterback.
Sophomore Philip Nelson suffered an injury to his right hamstring in the Gophers’ 29-12 victory over Western Illinois on Sept. 14. Redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner led the Gophers to victory in that game and last week against San Jose State, his first career start, the 6-4, 233-pounder from Lakeville, Minn., rushed for 151 yards and four TDs in a 43-24 victory.
He earned Big Ten freshman of the week, the first Gopher to earn that honor since . . . Nelson last Oct. 29.
“Running the action game and mixing up the power game it was a good formula,” Kill said. “Mitch is a tough kid. He’ll be a little sore tomorrow. It is good that we have the depth that we have. I appreciate the kid’s efforts.”
There’s more adversity. The Gophers lost running back Donnell Kirkwood, the leading rusher from 2012 with 925 yards, in week 2 with an ankle injury. Junior David Cobb (5-11, 225) and sophomore Rodrick Williams (5-11, 235) have filled in nicely, combining for a pair of 100-yard games — including 125 and two TDs last week from Cobb — 609 yards and eight TDs.
On 98 carries, the duo averages 6.21 a carry.
“I’ve been real proud of David,” Kill said. “I think game-by-game, he gets better.”
So, this isn’t the same 4-0 team that walked into Kinnick last season. Nelson and Kirkwood aren’t expected to start, but that just accentuates what might be the biggest difference between 2012 4-0 and 2013 4-0.
This team have overcome buckets of adversity.
““There will be a lot of things that come up. But there will be a lot of motivation,” Kill said when asked about the Iowa game. “That was last year, and this is this year, and we are playing at home. I know our home fans, for 365 days they wait for this opportunity. I would much rather play at home. There is nothing like playing at home and being able to take care of your home turf. Next week will be critical.”