Gophers ready to get into Big Ten season

by David La

First year coach Randy Walker of Northwestern (2-2, 0-1 in the Big Ten) is in for a big surprise. He recently offered his thoughts on the Wildcats’ next opponent.
“It’s going to be important we have a great week of work this week as we prepare for Wisconsin, a team that’s 3-0 and coming in here with an off week and a lot of things going for them it the right direction.”
Won’t he feel stupid when Minnesota (3-0, 0-0), shows up instead of the Badgers.
Walker was right on with the rest of his assessment of the incoming opponent, however. At the expense of some hapless nonconference teams, the Gophers do have a lot going their way — especially a stingy defense.
The unit is atop the Big Ten in passing defense efficiency, total defense, scoring defense and sacks in the young season. But coach Glen Mason is not putting stock in what he calls misleading statistics.
“Statistically we look awfully good on defense right now,” Mason said. “But let’s face it, starting this weekend and every week there on out the true test will be how we perform in the Big Ten conference.”
The Gophers defense has performed well in recent years against Big Ten competition and will need another strong effort Saturday. Northwestern had three players put up surprising, if not spectacular, offensive numbers in a close 31-23 loss to Purdue last weekend.
Wildcats quarterback Nick Kreinbrink went 17 of 38 for 241 yards and two touchdowns; running back Damien Anderson put up career best with his 38 carries for 150 yards; wide receiver Teddy Johnson hauled in seven balls that covered 128 yards and one trip to the end zone.
“We’ve made some big strides,” Walker said of his team. “But by the same token we’re far from the end of the journey, I know that. I think we’re playing hard, I think we’re playing the kind of football I can be proud of anyway.”
It’s also the type of football that makes the Gophers defense uneasy. Kreinbrink and Anderson give Northwestern a balanced offensive attack. And that’s the kind of offense that might keep the Gophers defense — a defense built on speed — in a tentative read-and-react mode.
One statistic that doesn’t show up from last week’s game is an 84-yard scoring pass Kreinbrink to Johnson that was called back because of a holding penalty. Since the Gophers secondary has yet to see a pass play cover more than 44 yards this season, deep passes like the one thrown to Johnson might catch them off guard.
But Mason is unlikely to allow his team to be caught that off guard. In addition to making a bowl bid, the Gophers are fighting to leave the wasteland of Big Ten mediocrity where they currently reside. To do so, Mason is preaching the need to take on all comers with equal fervor.
“They all really count the same,” Mason said of the games on the Big Ten schedule. “Is (Northwestern) a very, very important game to us? You bet it is.”
Mason went on to include each and every week of the schedule as very, very important, asking, “If we were to win this big ‘statement’ game and lose the next four in a row, what does it mean?
“Where we are,” said Mason, “we’re not one of those types of teams who can take someone for granted and point to other teams. We have to get ready for every game and try to play our best or we’re not going to do very well.”
Mason’s mantra for his team could be shared by his offense, a group that has run hot and cold during the nonconference schedule.
While the offense rolled up 33, 35 and 55 points in its first three games, respectively, Mason focused on things like mental mistakes, missed assignments and negative-yardage plays. In Mason’s estimation, any of the above setbacks will be magnified by Big Ten competition.
Mason, who has never coached against the Wildcats, had nothing but praise for a team he’s never seen in action.
“The bottom line is that I’m very impressed with them,” Mason said. “Without a doubt they’re our toughest competition to date and we’re going to have to be at the top of our game to have a chance.”

ù MSC will show the Northwestern game on tape-delay Saturday night, at 9 p.m.

ù The Minnesota-Wisconsin football game will begin at 11:10 a.m. The game will be televised on either ESPN2 or WCCO depending on baseball playoffs.

David La Vaque covers football and welcomes comments at [email protected]