MINNEAPOLIS - It was about the perfect formula as the University of Minnesota football team opened the 2022 season with a dominating 38-0 win over New Mexico State.
The Gophers ran for 297 of their 485 total yards. They had the ball for nearly 45 minutes of game time. Five rushing touchdowns, 31 first downs, one punt. The starting defense allowed around 60 total yards, and just two first downs over the first three quarters.
On a night where seven different players got a rushing attempt, the Gophers averaged 5.2 yards per carry. They also covered a 36.5-point spread.
"It’s definitely a great first step in our vision of this season. We love each and every play to know that we’ve got control of the ball, we’re going to run it, try and stop it," center John Michael Schmitz said. "That’s the offensive line’s pride to truly dominate the person across from you."
NO LOOKING PAST WESTERN ILLINOIS
The Gophers didn’t have to worry about overlooking the Aggies and being big favorites. Not with Jerry Kill coming back to town for the first time since making several comments critical of both PJ Fleck and Minnesota since he had to leave the program in 2015, and since Tracy Claeys was fired after the 2016 season.
This week, the Leathernecks of Western Illinois, an FCS program, come to Minneapolis. The Gophers are 37.5-point favorites. Last year, they dismantled Colorado on the road 30-0, then came home and were 31-point favorites against Bowling Green. The Gophers left the field that afternoon shell-shocked, and probably a little embarrassed after a 14-10 loss, arguably the worst in the Fleck era.
It still stings for players back from last year.
"It definitely does, it’s in there but you’ve got to move on from it. Learn from your past to create your future so nothing like that happens again," Schmitz said.
"We try to not think about that, but obviously that was a pretty tough week, pretty tough night. It was a lot to take on," safety Jordan Howden said. "It doesn’t matter if it’s Alabama or Bowling Green, we take it the same. Just be us, play as one and do what we gotta do."
Western Illinois comes to Minneapolis after losing its season opener, 42-25, to Tennessee-Martin. The Leathernecks allowed 260 rushing yards, 577 total and more than 14 yards per completion.
It’s an FCS opponent, it should be another convincing win. But the scars of Bowling Green remain present.
"We’re really just embracing the scars, and that’s something that we have to live with. It’s either we’re going to dwell on it, or make history off that history," linebacker Braelen Oliver said. "It’s football, you can get beat by any team, but you can beat any team also. Mentally, how we prepare is the same as if we’re playing the No. 1 team in the country."
There’s no better refresher of uncomfortably close non-conference games than this past weekend in the Big Ten. Iowa got past South Dakota State 7-3 without an offensive touchdown, managing a field goal and two safeties. Nebraska and North Dakota were tied 17-17 in the third quarter before the Cornhuskers scored the final 21 points.
"I think everybody in here knows a game last year we lost to a team we were highly favored over. So on any given Saturday if you’re not at your best, you can get beat. It doesn’t matter who the opponent is, what level they are," quarterback Tanner Morgan said. "We have to be our best every Saturday to give ourselves the best chance to win, and that’s what it’s all about."
DEFENSE GETS OFF TO DOMINANT START
The Gophers’ defense was top-10 in the country last season, and Joe Rossi’s group picked up where it left off after one game. The starting defense allowed just two first downs through three quarters. The Aggies managed 91 total yards, and passed just 12 times.
Thomas Rush and Danny Striggow got sacks, and Terrell Smith sealed the shut out with an interception. The problem? They only got 33 total snaps.
"For us if we only play 33 plays, that means we’re doing a great job. The less plays for us, the better. That means we’re doing our part on defense, and the offense is doing their part as well," Oliver said.
PJ Fleck joked on Monday he had defensive players coming to him after a game last season, complaining they didn’t get a lot of plays.
"He was telling us after the game that we should be excited that we only had 33 plays. The offense should be getting 60-plus, but it’s cool to see that we were out there and be able to stop them," Howden said.