Gophers face first Big Ten testFour cream puffs. Four victories. The easy part of the schedule is over for Minnesota. Now it’s time for the rugged Big Ten, and conference play couldn’t begin any tougher for the Gophers. They open this portion of the season on Saturday at No. 14 Ohio State, the three-time defending Big Ten champions.
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Four cream puffs. Four victories. The easy part of the schedule is over for Minnesota.
Now it’s time for the rugged Big Ten, and conference play couldn’t begin any tougher for the Gophers. They open this portion of the season on Saturday at No. 14 Ohio State, the three-time defending Big Ten champions.
“The preseason is done for this team. We get a big test the first week,” tight end Jack Simmons said. “Not only are guys excited about the Big Ten, but then you go and play the preseason favorite to win the conference. I think there’s going to be an edge about us and that will be exciting to see in practice.”
There better be.
The Gophers showed signs of progress from last year’s 1-11 season by beating the teams they were supposed to beat in the nonconference schedule this season — Northern Illinois, Bowling Green, Montana State and Florida Atlantic.
They are coming off a 37-3 victory over the Owls at home that was the most convincing of coach Tim Brewster’s brief tenure at Minnesota. But the combined record of those first four opponents is 4-9, and now they go into the Horseshoe against the 3-1 Buckeyes, whose only loss came at No. 1 USC two weeks ago.
“Obviously that’s the start we wanted to have,” quarterback Adam Weber said. “Now it’s about carrying that momentum into the Big Ten and keeping this thing going.”
Unlike many teams from the power conferences, the Gophers couldn’t afford to take any opponent — not even Montana State — lightly coming into this season. They went just 1-3 in nonconference play last season and had plenty to prove even against their weakest competition in Brewster’s second season.
The preparation seems to have served them well to this point.
“I think we’re just going to keep practicing the way we’ve been practicing,” linebacker Simoni Lawrence said. “It’s just like we’re playing another game. We prepare the same way we would for any other team.”
Ah, Simoni, but this isn’t just another game. Many of these young Gophers have no idea what it’s like to play a game against a fellow Big Ten opponent.
Practice is a little more intense. The hype is ramped up. The speed of the game is much, much faster.
Weber, who knows what it’s like to get that first taste of conference play, said he will spend this week stressing that to the true freshmen and junior college transfers — like Lawrence — who will be walking into Ohio Stadium with him on Saturday.
But Brewster said there’s nothing you can say to prepare a player for that first experience.
“I think you’ve got to throw ‘em in the deep end and say, ‘Swim,”‘ Brewster said. “That’s pretty much the deal in this conference. Week-in and week-out you’re going to have to be prepared to play at a very high level.”
Despite the blowout loss to the Trojans — and two laughers against the SEC in the last two national championship games — Ohio State is still the cream of the crop in the Big Ten.
The Buckeyes will get star running back Beanie Wells back in the lineup this week and freshman sensation Terrelle Pryor will get his second start at quarterback.
Couple that with a young Minnesota team that is still learning how to play together, and it was no surprise that Brewster called the task “daunting.” These young Gophers will have to grow up fast if they hope to compete against the Buckeyes, but they all say they’re looking forward to finding out what the Big Ten is all about.
“I think the Big Ten schedule is exciting for our players, in particular when you open up the Big Ten schedule against Ohio State at Ohio State,” Brewster said. “I don’t think it gets any more exciting than that.”