The Gophers have never faced the Tulsa Hurricanes, who are coming off a 1-11 season in the Western Athletic Conference. But despite the preseason excitement over Minnesota's prospects this year, don't think the Gophers are overlooking Tulsa. After all, in last year's season-opener, the Hurricanes traveled to No. 1 Oklahoma and only trailed 3-0 at halftime, before the Sooners pulled away to a 37-0 victory.
Tulsa raided the Buffalo Bills' coaching staff and tabbed new head coach Steve Kragthorpe to find a new direction for the program, and he's excited to make his debut in Minneapolis this weekend.
"I think it will be a lively crowd. It's a tough venue to play in because it's a dome," Kragthorpe said. "I know they'll have an excellent crowd. They've got great fans. They've got a great team coming back. Any time you go on the road and play a Big 10 opponent it's a great challenge for our team. But I'm excited for our players to go there."
The Hurricanes are only 1-4 in five previous games against Big Ten foes, but the one victory was a 27-20 upset of No. 19 Iowa in 1996. In order to pull off a similar surprise, Kragthorpe said his team has to keep the ball away from the potent Gophers offense.
"The biggest thing is we're going to have to take care of the football and make them play on a long field," Kragthorpe said. "They have an excellent offense. The best defense for us is to keep their offense off the field because they're very potent.
"It's a challenge for us. They have a great offense. They have a lot of starters coming back. On the flip side of the ball, we can't give up big plays. We have to make them earn their points and make them drive the football in order to do that, and hopefully force them to making some mistakes during the course of those drives."
The Hurricanes are turning to a new quarterback after last year's signal-caller, Tyler Gooch, quit football after spring practice to focus on his baseball career. Kragthorpe was the Bills' quarterback coach, which should help speed the development of junior James Kilian, who will be behind center on Saturday.
Kilian has started two games in his two years at Tulsa and has completed just 42 percent of his passes for 401 yards and a touchdown in his career. But Kragthorpe is happy with his progress since taking the reins in fall practice.
"He's done an excellent job being a leader on the field and off the field," Kragthorpe said. "I like his command in the huddle. He's played well enough to be named the starter. I'm excited about the opportunity for him being able to go out and play Saturday night. What I've told James, and will continue to tell him is that he doesn't have to go out and try to be Superman. He's just one of the guys on the offense that we want to be productive."
Kilian does have four career rushing touchdowns and could keep the Gophers off-balance with his running. "James is an excellent athlete. He presents some problems to a defense because his mobility and ability to make plays with his feet," Kragthorpe said.
On the ground, look for 5-foot-10 senior Eric Richardson to get the bulk of the carries. He had four 100-yard rushing games last year en route to 957-yard season. Sophomore Uril Parrish (5-9, 192 pounds) could also see playing time after a strong finish last year.
Tulsa returns a pair of 6-2 wide receivers who will look to stretch the field against the Gophers. Romby Bryant caught 49 balls for 593 yards and seven TDs last year, while junior Montiese Culton had 35 grabs for 415 yards and four TDs in nine games.
The offensive line returns three starters and lines up three 300-pounders to grapple with the Gophers' d-line. "I think our offensive line is a solid group," Kragthorpe said. "They played with a lot of cohesiveness in the spring. They're a tough group who will battle every Saturday."
On defense, Tulsa will play a 3-4 alignment, with senior linebacker Jorma Bailey (5-11, 199) the leading returning tackler. Bailey's 71 stops were second on the squad last year.
The Hurricanes return punter Cort Moffitt (40.2 yards per punt last year) and kicker Brad DeVault (7-for-12 on field goals with a long kick of 45 yards last year).
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