In recent years the Gophers have struggled against FCS opponents, but that changed in year two under Jerry Kill as the Gophers easily handled a good FCS team in the New Hampshire Wildcats 44-7. This year's FCS opponent, Western Illinois, is not expected to be as competitive at the FCS level as New Hampshire was last year. The Leatherneck's will also be breaking in a new head coach in Bob Nielson whose name may sound familiar to Gopher fans as he was the Head Coach at the University of Minnesota Duluth when they won Division II National Championships in 2008 and 2010. Nielson will likely have a rough first year as the team he inherits a team that went just 3-8 last year including six straight losses to end the year.
The Leatherneck Offense:
If Nielson carries over his offense from Duluth the Western Illinois offense will look somewhat similar to what the Gophers saw last year in New Hampshire. Nielson likes to run his QB a bit more, similar to what Jerry Kill did at Northern Illinois, but look for a lot of quick passes as well to spread out the defense to set up the run. Nielson's teams at UMD also liked to go no huddle at times to wear out the defense and not allow for substitutions as easily. This being his first year at Western Illinois, their ability to execute this type of offense may not be up to par.
The Leatherneck Defense:
Nielson ran a 3-4 defense in Duluth but that transition is generally a slower one as it takes time to get the proper personnel in the program. It will be tough for the leathernecks to run a 3-4 this year as they only list nine linebackers on their roster and of those, four are freshman. The Leatherneck's also don't have a lot of size along the Defensive Line and allowed 264 rushing yards against Iowa State last year so they will have a tough time stopping a Gopher rushing attack that rushed for 222 yards against Texas Tech. Last year the Leatherneck pass defense allowed Iowa State to complete 66% of their passes for 240 yards though they were able to come up with two INT's.
3 Keys to the Game:
1. Don't overlook them. Yes, this is a game the Gophers should win easily, even if they don't play particularly well. But, in the past the Gophers have struggled and lost in this type of game because they were looking ahead a week and while it doesn't seem likely the current staff would let that happen, it may still be tough for the players not to overlook Western Illinois and lose focus.
2. Don't turn the ball over. This is especially key early in the game as you don't want to give Western Illinois any reason to hope they can come out with a win. Turnover's often go hand in hand with a major swing in momentum and if the Gophers can keep the momentum early, it shouldn't be close late.
3. Stay healthy. This is without a doubt a game the Gophers should easily win so you don't want to see any key players go down right before a big game against San Jose State followed by the start of league play. If the Gophers get the win and get out healthy, it should be considered a success.
45-7 Gophers win. The Gophers ran up 44 points against a good FCS team in New Hampshire last year and should be even better this year and face a less respected FCS foe. If everything goes as it should, the backups should play most of the second half for the Gophers.