Gophers prep for trip to the Big House

Minnesota needs to bounce back this weekend against No. 19 Michigan.

Minnesota safety Cedric Thompson tackles San Jose State wide receiver Chandler Jones on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013, at TCF Bank Stadium.

Ichigo Takikawa, Daily File Photo

Minnesota safety Cedric Thompson tackles San Jose State wide receiver Chandler Jones on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013, at TCF Bank Stadium.

Jack Satzinger

Minnesota played host to Michigan last year in front of an announced crowed of 48,801 and lost 35-13. This season, the Gophers will play in front of a crowd more than twice that size at Michigan Stadium.

It’s nicknamed “The Big House” for good reason – the stadium held an announced crowd of 115,109 earlier this year in a game against Notre Dame. It holds more fans than any other football stadium in the country.

Michigan is ranked 19th in the Associated Press Top 25 poll this year and leads the Gophers 72-24 in head-to-head games.

Still, the Gophers are trying not to let any of that get to them.

“You can’t worry about what it says on the side of the helmet all the time,” head coach Jerry Kill said. “You’ve got to learn as a player to control what you can control, and that’s play well.”

The Gophers didn’t play well last week against Iowa and were outworked up front on the line of scrimmage. Kill said the team prepared adequately for the rivalry game against Iowa but let the excitement of playing a big game get to them.

It was homecoming. Iowa was in town. TCF Bank Stadium was sold out. And Minnesota was out of sorts.

“I think they were so excited about playing with a great crowd that we played … out of control,” Kill said. “We’ve got to take care of us and play within ourselves. We know we’re better than [how] we played on Saturday.”

It’s easy for a young team to play out of control in a big game, and against Iowa, that’s exactly what the Gophers did.

Minnesota will look to reverse that on the road this weekend.

Some upperclassmen on the team played at “The Big House” two years ago when the Gophers lost 58-0 and admitted to being in awe of its size.

“I was a freshman when I first saw ‘The Big House,’ so it was definitely shocking to me,” junior safety Cedric Thompson said. “At the end of the day, it’s just the same game.”

Owning their identity

In Saturday’s loss to Iowa, Minnesota only rushed for 30 yards on 27 attempts — a contrast from the nonconference schedule, when the Gophers dominated on the ground.

Minnesota is still averaging nearly 232 rushing yards per game.

Redshirt sophomore center Jon Christenson said technique was one reason the team struggled to run the ball against Iowa. He said the Hawkeyes’ defensive linemen were able to control Minnesota’s offensive linemen with their hands. Christenson said the team has learned how to fix that after watching film this week.

The Gophers desperately need to get back to dominating on the ground this week against Michigan.

“We really are trying to create an identity,” Christensen said. “We’re a running team. … We play power football, and we love that. That’s a lot of fun for an offensive lineman.”

Another factor that could have hindered Minnesota’s running game Saturday was the loss of redshirt senior fullback Mike Henry to
injury.

Christensen said Henry is an incredible blocker and having a good lead blocker is pivotal for running backs.

Kill said Henry’s absence hurt Minnesota’s offense because it forced the Gophers to move different players into the backfield.

Maxx Williams was one of those players, as he shifted from his tight end spot to fill the void at fullback that Henry left. Williams has emerged as one of Minnesota’s best receivers as a redshirt freshman. Williams has multiple catches of 20-plus yards but hasn’t caught a pass since the Sept. 14 game against Western Illinois.

“Until somebody’s gone, you never know how much you miss him,” Kill said of Henry. “We had to move people around because of his injury. … I think it hurt us.”

Henry’s status for the game at Michigan is uncertain.

11 on 11

Michigan might fill its stadium with more than 100,000 fans Saturday, but on the field, it’s 11 Gophers against 11 Wolverines.

Kill said his team won’t focus on the grandeur that comes with going up against one of college football’s powerhouses.

Minnesota hasn’t beaten Michigan since 2005 and hasn’t registered a win over a top-25 opponent since 2010.

Still, the Gophers don’t care about rankings and right now are just worried about themselves.

“I don’t look at rankings,” Thompson said. “There are 11 guys who … are talented just like we are. …They’re guys just like us.”