Time to show them what you’ve got, kid

Saturday’s game at Michigan will be QB Bryan Cupito’s first defining moment.

Ben Goessling

This time, there will be no deferring to the two men who line up behind him, no blending into the obscurity offered by 8 p.m. starts in a half-empty, Teflon-coated bubble.

This is Michigan Stadium, in broad daylight, where 110,000 people know the inevitable. Sometime during the visiting quarterback’s stay, he’ll have to rise up and silence the crowd all by himself.

Bryan Cupito’s cover is blown.

And there’s nothing he can do but anticipate Minnesota’s football team’s date with No. 14 Michigan on Saturday and hope to seize the moment.

“This is our game. If we want respect, we have to win,” the Gophers quarterback said. “It comes down to me making the right decisions.”

So far, the sophomore has played beyond almost all expectations, ranking second in the Big Ten in passing efficiency and leading the 13th-ranked Gophers to a 5-0 start.

But it takes something more to win in college football’s answer to the Colosseum, where nearly 10 million fans have watched 78 teams get thrown to the lions in 92 contests over the last 15 years.

If it didn’t take more, a Gophers quarterback more recent than Rickey Foggie would be able to talk about a victory in the Big House.

“You have to have more talent than them to win there,” said Foggie, who quarterbacked Minnesota’s last win over Michigan, a 20-17 decision in 1986. “I’ve never heard anybody call the game we won a fluke. As an opposing player, it can be shocking.”

Growing up quickly

Cupito entered the season as the biggest question mark on a team expected to contend for its first Rose Bowl berth since 1962.

But with returning 1,000-yard rushers Marion Barber III and Laurence Maroney behind him, he has rolled along smoothly.

“He’s done a good job of not making mistakes that really hurt us,” quarterbacks coach Tony Petersen said. “We’ve only had two turnovers, and that has a lot to do with Bryan and what he’s done on the field mentally.”

Coach Glen Mason touted Cupito as an extremely accurate passer, but his debut rendered that characterization an understatement. He went 10-for-12 for 279 yards and a touchdown in the season opener against Toledo, completing four passes of 40 yards or longer in the first quarter alone.

The Cincinnati native has thrown just one interception in five games and might be the most advanced newcomer in the Big Ten.

But his father, Steve Cupito, said that shouldn’t come as a surprise.

“Initially, they stuck him at center, but he was the quarterback by the time he was 8. Even then, he could always throw it right at them,” Steve Cupito said. “I think he was just born to be a quarterback. There are a lot of instincts there you just can’t learn.”

Big for the program, too

All this, however, is moot unless Minnesota beats Michigan on Saturday. For a program that desperately seeks an identity, and a quarterback who hasn’t cemented one yet, this visit to the Big House is a crossroads.

“I think it’s human nature to think about what this would do for the program,” Mason said. “But I’ve told the players you can’t get caught up in wishing, hoping and praying. God’s got a lot more important things to worry about than the Gophers. We can’t get ahead of ourselves.”

No, the best thing for Minnesota to do might be to look back – namely, to 1986. That team was a nondescript 6-6 in coach John Gutekunst’s first season, but the Gophers’ victory over then-No. 2 Michigan stands out as one of the watershed moments in recent team history.

“We were like a 29-point underdog. We took the approach. We didn’t have anything to lose,” Foggie said. “In the fourth quarter, lo and behold, we’re not getting blown out. We looked at each other and said, ‘We’ve got a chance.’ “

If there’s one thing Bryan Cupito should know, it’s that he can’t blink in the 110,000-to-1 staredown. Otherwise, his name, at least for this year, will wind up with Asad Abdul-Khaliq, Travis Cole, Billy Cockerham, Cory Sauter, Tim Schade, Marquel Fleetwood and Scott Schaffner on the ever-expanding list of Minnesota quarterbacks who couldn’t beat Michigan.

The first name on that list carries extra significance for Bryan Cupito. He was the backup last year, watching from the sidelines as Abdul-Khaliq threw a costly interception that went back for a touchdown as part of Michigan’s now-infamous 31-point fourth quarter in a 38-35 win.

The game started a two-game slide that cost Minnesota a Rose Bowl berth.

“You go home, and all your friends say how you threw up against Michigan,” Bryan Cupito said. “It’s an unreal feeling to watch the whole game change in one quarter.”

This weekend, Bryan Cupito’s parents will travel to Michigan Stadium, as they go to all his games. But this time, they’ll be flanked by 40 friends and family members.

Foggie will be watching on television, unable to keep from referring to the Gophers as if he’s still on the team and clinging to his belief that the 2004 score written on the Little Brown Jug will signify a Minnesota victory.

But ultimately, it very likely could come down to Bryan Cupito. He knows it. He realizes there will be 110,000 fans in Michigan Stadium waiting for him. And Saturday, he won’t be able to get around it.

“I don’t think we’d even go if we didn’t think we had a chance,” Bryan Cupito said. “We want to go to the Rose Bowl, and we’ve got to go through Michigan to do it. I’ve never been so excited for a game in my life.”