Gophers gear up for toughest test yet

Minnesota is 2-0 for the first time since 2009.

Minnesota wide receiver A.J. Barker scores a touchdown Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium.

Anthony Kwan, Daily File Photo

Minnesota wide receiver A.J. Barker scores a touchdown Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium.

Samuel Gordon

Minnesota is 2-0 for the first time since 2009. That, in itself, is a victory.

But let’s face it — Nevada-Las Vegas and New Hampshire aren’t exactly big-time opponents.

This week’s opponent, Western Michigan, is no Alabama. The Broncos are, however, the first viable opponent the Gophers will face.

Western Michigan lost its opener but is fresh off a 52-21 drubbing of Eastern Illinois. The Broncos were 7-6 last year, with the sixth defeat being a 37-32 loss to Big Ten foe Purdue in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.

Purdue hammered Minnesota 45-17 last year.

Gophers head coach Jerry Kill tangoed with WMU in the Mid-American Conference when he coached at Northern Illinois.

Kill, never hesitant to praise an opponent, had nothing but positive things to say about the Broncos, too.

“They’re a top-tier team in the MAC conference,” Kill said. “They’ve won a lot of games there and been to a lot of bowl games. We certainly will have to continue to improve.”

Minnesota certainly looked like an improved team in its 44-7 win over New Hampshire last Saturday.

What didn’t show up in the box score were the fundamental mistakes Kill said he spotted during film study.

“In our program, where we’re at right now, we’ve got to look at technique, fundamentals, execution, what we’re doing within our system,” Kill said.

“We have no room for error. We have to play really, really good, clean football to have a chance to be successful with anybody on our schedule.”

Gophers’ senior quarterback MarQueis Gray, who accounted for four touchdowns in Minnesota’s win over New Hampshire, said the team’s greatest improvement is its confidence.

“We played confident, we played together as a team,” Gray said. “This is the first time we’ve been 2-0 in a while. You can sense that energy and that confidence. … That’s one thing we’re looking forward to going into this weekend.”

The Gophers’ confidence is justified this week: Minnesota is a three-point favorite over upset-minded Western Michigan.

The Broncos averaged more than 35 points a game last year, 18th out of 120 teams nationally. Offensively, they employ an aerial attack that a modern fighter pilot would be proud of.

Quarterback Alex Carder mans the cockpit. The fifth-year senior threw for 3,873 yards last year, eighth nationally, and 31 touchdowns.

His top three targets from 2011 all graduated, including Jordan White, whose 140 catches and 1,911 yards ranked first in the nation.

Carder’s new favorite target is freshman Jaime Wilson, and the young fellow can play. In two games, he’s snagged 19 balls for 213 yards and a trio of touchdowns.

Minnesota’s defensive backfield will likely be tested for the first time. Kill said he’s been happy with the way his secondary has performed. He said it’s “critical they continue to play well” this week.

The Gophers’ pass rush has been key in their two victories, and defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman said it’s essential to pressure Carder.

“I’m excited. Going over the film and seeing how many times they throw the ball,” he said, “we’re very excited.”