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Bohl, Mason both see big gains from game

Glen Mason

MINNEAPOLIS - It's a must-win and ano-win situation all rolled into one.

That's how the University of Minnesota football team is approaching Saturday's game against North Dakota State.

With the Gophers nursing a four-game losing streak and on the brink of missing a bowl invitation for the first time in five years, quarterback Bryan Cupito calls it a must win.

And with the Gophers tagged as heavy favorites against a Bison team that competes in a lower division, Gophers head coach Glen Mason called it a lose-lose situation during Tuesday's weekly news conference.

"When Penn State beat Youngstown State earlier this year, I'm sure everybody thought, 'so what,' " said Mason, referring to Penn State's 37-3 win over an opponent that competes at the same Division I-AA level as NDSU. "But if a Youngstown State would beat an Ohio State and then it's, 'Wow.'

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"So as a coach in games like this, you're kind of in a lose-lose situation. But that's the way it goes."

For NDSU, playing its first Big Ten Conference opponent since 1946, a win in the Metrodome would arguably be the biggest in the program's storied history.

With NDSU owning a 6-0 record - including a 29-24 win over Division I-A Ball State - Tuesday's radio sports talk show airwaves in the Twin Cities were filled with predictions of a Bison upset.

NDSU head coach Craig Bohl knows it's a tall order, but not impossible.

Division I teams have a 40-5 record against I-AA teams this year - by an average score of 40-10. But the five I-AA wins give hope for the Bison and a reminder to the Gophers that such upsets are possible.

Two of those upsets involved fellow Big Ten Conference teams. Northwestern lost to I-AA New Hampshire 34-17 on Sept. 9, and Indiana lost to Southern Illinois 35-28 on Sept. 16.

"We need to play our best game of the year," Bohl said during his weekly press conference Monday. "They are a Big Ten football team. So we have to play as close to error-free as we can."

So will it be hard for the Gophers to prepare for the Bison - one week before it has to play at top-ranked Ohio State? Mason says no.

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"Is North Dakota State an Ohio State? They are not," Mason said. "But the way that we performed last week, it shouldn't be much of a problem for our coaching staff and our players to prepare this week. It hasn't been much fun and games around here this week."

The Gophers are coming off a 48-12 loss at Wisconsin. Cupito, the senior quarterback who ranks fourth in Big Ten passing, described his offense's performance at Wisconsin as terrible. The Gophers were able to muster up only 200 yards of total offense.

"If I was at that game as a Minnesota fan, I would have left in the third quarter," said Cupito, whose team's last win came Sept. 16 against Temple. "It feels like we haven't won forever. We need a win. I don't care if we win by one point or 50 points.

"We need a win. People probably think we're overlooking North Dakota State, but we're not. This is the biggest game of the year for them. We'll just take a win any way we can."

Bohl, a former assistant coach at Division I-A Nebraska, remembers the challenge of preparing his Huskers for a so-called inferior opponent. The challenge, he said, is somehow preventing players from thinking they can just show up and win.

Now, as the underdog, Bohl's challenge is getting his players to understand that the margin of error is extremely small.

"We sure can't go into a game like this and get a punt blocked," Bohl said. "We have to remember that the University of Minnesota has 85 scholarships and we have 63. That forces you to be as error-free as possible."

Mason, meanwhile, is hoping his offense perks up and his defense can make a third-down stop. He's well aware of Bohl's Division I experience at Nebraska, a powerhouse that often defeated the University of Kansas team he coached from 1988 to 1996.

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"What I see that Craig has done up there (in Fargo) doesn't surprise me one bit," Mason said. "I always marveled at the job they did at Nebraska. Always fundamentally sound.

"North Dakota State is a good, solid and well-coached football team. I'm assuming that we're not going to overlook them. To be honest, it's unimaginable to me that we could overlook anybody."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kevin Schnepf at (701) 241-5549

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