Tanner Morgan didn’t have to say the school by name on Tuesday. It’s easy to recall, given how the loss ended up effectively tattooed on the forehead of 2021 Gophers football team.
“I think everybody in here knows a game last year where we lost to a team we were highly favored over,” the Gophers quarterback told a room of reporters on the U campus.
That, of course, was Bowling Green 14, Minnesota 10 at Huntington Bank Stadium on Sept. 25. The U was a 31-point favorite against the struggling Mid-American Conference school, which finished 4-8 last season.
Minnesota is another big favorite Saturday. Coming off a 38-0 season-opening win as a 36.5-point favorite against New Mexico State on Sept. 1, the Gophers are a 37.5-point home favorite against Western Illinois at 11 a.m. Saturday.
“We don’t really look into that stuff,” Gophers safety Jordan Howden said about betting lines. “We just go week by week. 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 got to do.”
Western Illinois was 2-9 last season and had a coaching change to Myers Hendrickson, who came from NAIA school Kansas Wesleyan. In his first game Sept. 1, the Leathernecks gave up 577 yards in a 42-25 loss to fellow FCS-level school Tennessee Martin.
A couple of FCS schools pushed Big Ten programs in games last weekend, with North Dakota within a touchdown of Nebraska going into the fourth quarter of an eventual 38-17 loss. South Dakota State fell 7-3 to Iowa, which needed two safeties and a field goal to win at home.
But more likely, the big boys exerted their will in Week 1: Wisconsin beat Illinois State (and U transfer quarterback Zack Annexstad) 38-0, Kansas State blanked South Dakota 34-0, and Air Force topped Northern Iowa 48-17.
Western Illinois tested the Gophers in their one previous matchup in 2013. The Leathernecks took a 12-7 lead over Minnesota in the third quarter before the U strung together three rushing touchdowns to pull away and win 29-12.
The Gophers are 60-4 all-time against FCS schools, with two losses apiece to North Dakota State and South Dakota. The U last played an FCS school in 2019, needing everything to beat South Dakota State 28-21 in the season opener.
This Western Illinois team is expected to take a page out of Bowling Green’s recipe for success against Minnesota by taking risks defensively, mixing up its looks and possibly putting two players in the same gap to disrupt the U offense.
“Different fronts and different blitzes and challenging looks here and there,” U center John Michael Schmitz said. “Definitely can put us in a bad situation, so that is why we need to be on point.”
Yet it wasn’t just Bowling Green last year. Illinois came to Minnesota as a 14-point underdog and beat the Gophers 14-6 on Nov. 6. That Big Ten loss wounded the Gophers’ goal of winning the West Division.
“We are not taking anyone lightly,” Schmitz said. “You talk about last season, with the games we’ve had and came up a little short. There is no error for that. We are looking to go 1-0 in every single week. That is what our main focus is on.”
That Bowling Green loss was 50 weeks ago, but those three Gophers players, as well as linebacker Braelen Oliver, say it still sticks with them.
“It definitely does,” Schmitz said. “It’s in there, but you got to move on from it. Learn from your past to create your future, so nothing like that happens again.”