Game against Cal good prep for Big Ten

Mark Remme

Minnesota’s football team is about to embark into what has been uncharted territory in the Mason era.

When the Gophers arrive in Berkeley, Calif., for Saturday’s meeting with No. 23 California, it will be the first time in 10 years Minnesota has played a ranked, nonconference opponent during the regular season.

The Gophers’ last meeting with a ranked opponent came on Sept. 21, 1996, against No. 23 Syracuse – when current Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb was taking snaps for the Orange – which Minnesota won 35-33.

The match-up proves to be an early indication of how Minnesota will fare against Big Ten Conference opponents, four of which are ranked in the top 25.

“There is no question that Cal is going to be a tough opponent,” junior tackle Steve Shidell said. “The game is going to be very tough for us to go there, but we are just going to have to bring our ‘A’ game and play our best.”

The Gophers will see an offense that starkly contrasts what they saw against Kent State. California has both depth at quarterback and a Heisman Trophy candidate, junior running back Marshawn Lynch.

“(Lynch) is a combination of (Laurence) Maroney and (Marion) Barber,” sophomore defensive end Willie VanDeSteeg said. “He is alert, really fast and we hope to keep him under control.”

Along with the solid Bears offense is a bruising defense.

Coach Glen Mason said California’s talent is a good indication of the reason they finished near the top of the Pacific-10 conference in defense last season.

The Bears finished first in defensive scoring while finishing second in both total defense and rushing defense during conference play.

Defenses don’t put up such impressive numbers in any conference without outstanding players, Mason said.

California’s status as a contender for the Pac-10 championship, a conference that has produced two national champions in the past three years, should bring validity to Minnesota’s nonconference schedule.

“I’ve taken some heat from some guys about our nonconference schedule,” Mason said. “Look who’s playing who. I maintain more often than not that our schedule is tougher than most people. I just do.”

Mason said the Gophers’ schedule strength is evident, which he related to a review he listened to about Notre Dame’s “brutal” schedule.

“They said, ‘They play Penn State, they play Michigan, they play Michigan State, they play Purdue’ – welcome to the Big Ten,” Mason said. “Well, they play Southern Cal, but they don’t play Ohio State.”

“If you think I’m taking a shot at Notre Dame, I’m not. I’m just saying when you remember the Big Ten conference, it’s really tough,” Mason said.

Shidell said a tough opponent like California will be beneficial heading into conference play.

He said it is nice to have the opportunity to play a tough opponent on the road and that Minnesota will have to play at a high level in order to hang with the Bears.

Nevertheless, the Gophers find themselves in a rare position in nonconference games: the underdogs.

“We have to think about the big win – that is what separates the good from the great teams,” said sophomore strong safety Dominic Jones. “There probably isn’t anyone in the country that is giving us a chance against Cal so it will be very interesting.”

With six bowl games in seven years on the line and a fan base accustomed to winning seasons, the Gophers could solidify national respect, and possibly a ranking, with a solid performance on the West Coast.

“It’s a good challenge because everyone is counting us out,” said sophomore running back Alex Daniels. “We already know if we beat (California) how many teams are going, ‘Oh, Minnesota’s for real.’ “