Steven M. Sipple: Overlook fired-up Gophers at your own peril

2013-10-25T19:15:00Z 2013-10-25T20:42:28Z Steven M. Sipple: Overlook fired-up Gophers at your own perilBy STEVEN M. SIPPLE / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

MINNEAPOLIS -- We, the almighty and all-knowing media (cough, cough), like to tell college football coaches how to run their programs.

Nobody needs to tell Tracy Claeys, Minnesota's acting head coach, how to make an effective postgame speech.

He was brilliant after last Saturday's surprise victory at Northwestern. It was an emotional locker room scene, with Jerry Kill looking on.

"He'll tell you and I'll tell you this: You're better than what you think you are, but you have to believe that," Claeys told the players. "You show up, and you play hard, and you believe in yourselves, there's not a game left we can't win."

This probably isn't the ideal time for the 25th-ranked Huskers (5-1, 2-0 Big Ten) to be catching the Gophers (5-2, 1-2), who clearly picked up confidence last week and clearly have ample motivation, for obvious reasons.

Minnesota's players are playing with a sense of purpose, for something bigger than themselves -- that is, for head coach Kill, who announced Oct. 10 that he's taking an open-ended leave of absence to treat his epilepsy. He watched last week's game from the press box in Evanston, Ill.

Let's be real: Nebraska has a sizable advantage in overall talent and should control the game, especially if the Huskers' defense holds firm against the Gophers' relatively physical running game (prediction: Huskers 38, Gophers 21).

Minnesota, however, may have an edge in the intangibles of genuine emotion, energy and momentum. Nebraska, coming off a bye week, should gird for a strong initial surge from the Gophers, for whatever that's worth.

It might be worth a lot if the Huskers immediately get knocked on their heels. Some teams struggle to recover. NU isn't Alabama. Just sayin'.

"They've got some swag right now," Huskers running backs coach Ron Brown said of the Gophers.

Brown has known Kill for years. The third-year Minnesota coach is beloved by his players and assistants, Brown said.

"And you know what? Love is a hard force to break apart," he said. "Those guys have it for one another. Jerry Kill loves his players. So, when he's going through his difficulties healthwise, you can't tell me those players and coaches aren't rallying around him.

"Then, the guy makes a commitment to come to the (Northwestern) game. ... There's a lot of emotion there."

Of course, Minnesota needs more than emotion to cure its deficiencies in the passing game -- the Gophers are 119th nationally. However, they're 28th in rushing, averaging 210.1 yards. They favor a physical, smack-you-in-the-mouth style.

Nebraska coaches all week stressed the importance of limiting Minnesota's early-down runs. The idea is to get the Gophers in third-and-medium or third-and-long. Granted, that's the idea against any team. But it could be particularly beneficial against an offense with inconsistent quarterback play and very ordinary receivers.

Minnesota could make the afternoon interesting if it controls the ball and, in effect, shortens the game. The Gophers typically don't stymie themselves with turnovers and penalties.

"They're going to pound the football and they're going to try to impose their will on us, and it's going to come down to who's tougher," said Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis.

Sounds like fun. Almost as fun as constantly parsing statements by Husker coaches regarding the team's hazy quarterback situation.

I'm more interested in learning whether Nebraska's defense continues to trend upward. Count me among the skeptics.

Papuchis said when Nebraska's defense plays to its potential, it can be as good as any defense -- yes, even the vaunted crew at Michigan State.

"I would put our game film against Purdue against Michigan State's game film against Purdue," Papuchis said. "It was the same stats. The same bottom line.

"I'm saying that with total respect to Michigan State. They've had the best defense in our league for a couple years. But when we play well, we're pretty good. I'm hoping what we saw the last couple games is really who we are."

Believing that is the case is a good start. As Claeys told the Gophers last week, you gotta believe.

Reach Steven M. Sipple at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com.

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About the writer

Steven M. Sipple | Lincoln Journal Star

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.


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