Quarterback MarQueis Gray said he breathed a sigh of relief after the Gophers escaped with a 30-27 triple-overtime victory over Nevada–Las Vegas last week.
This week should, in theory, be a little less stressful for the team as it hosts New Hampshire, a second-tier opponent.
But Minnesota has struggled recently in games against lesser foes, which are usually designed as confidence boosters early in the year.
In fact, the Gophers haven’t beaten a Football Championship Subdivision team since 2009.
FCS programs are still considered a part of Division I football, but they are a step below the 120 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Minnesota lost 41-38 to South Dakota at home two years ago and lost 37-24 to North Dakota State at home last year in head coach Jerry Kill’s first season with the team.
NDSU scored 28 points in the second quarter to take a 14-point halftime lead.
“I struggled last year, and I’ll be honest with you: North Dakota State, they kicked our butt,” Kill said. “They physically beat us. They’re better than us. It is what it is.”
Even the NDSU fans were more impressive in that game as a sea of green and yellow appeared to outnumber maroon and gold in the stands at TCF Bank Stadium.
“I think we underestimated those guys knowing they’re coming from a smaller program and we’re up in the Big Ten,” Gray said. “We think we can’t be touched, but as we’ve been proven, we’ve lost those games.”
Gray said that overall feeling of embarrassment — walking off the field at home after a loss to a lower-level squad — still sticks with him. He said he constantly reminds his team of that feeling. He wants them to remember because he doesn’t want to experience that again.
Kill — while admitting the effort against NDSU last season was below par — understands firsthand the underdog mentality that smaller schools take into these types of games.
He coached an FCS program in Southern Illinois for seven seasons from 2001 to 2007 and achieved some success against teams in the upper echelon of Division I football.
“This is a bowl game for New Hampshire,” Kill said. “We won a lot of games when I was [an FCS coach] … but as the head coach, I told them, ‘Hey, this is your deal here. It’ll put you on the map.’ You’re going to get their best, so if you don’t bring yours, you’ll get in trouble.”
New Hampshire finished last season a respectable 8-4 but was pummeled in its only game against an FBS school, a 58-22 loss against Toledo.
Despite the shellacking, the Wildcats made the FCS playoffs last season, where they fell to Montana in the second round.
“They’ve been winning a long time,” said Kill, who compared the Wildcats to NDSU. “New Hampshire’s been in the [FCS] playoffs year in, year out.”
New Hampshire opened its 2012 season last week and defeated Holy Cross 38-17.
The Wildcats are led by redshirt freshman quarterback Sean Goldrich, who threw for 193 yards and rushed for 71 in the team’s first game.
Their offense moves at a quick pace similar to that of Oklahoma State or Oregon, Kill said.
“They’re going to spread you out. They’re going to snap it 90 to 100 times a game. They’re a no-huddle offense,” he said.
As for New Hampshire’s defense, Gray said the team used film sessions to prepare to emphasize its running game Saturday.
That means running backs Donnell Kirkwood and James Gillum — as well as Gray —should see more carries this week.
Kirkwood led the team in rushing against UNLV with 13 carries for 81 yards.
He too remembers last year’s matchup with NDSU and knows Minnesota “might have taken them lightly in the back of [their] heads.”
He vowed the team is more focused this time around.