Gophers open season against rebuilding Tulsa

Updated: August 29, 2003, 3:39 PM ET

MINNEAPOLIS -- Steve Kragthorpe brings to Tulsa something that has been missing from the Golden Hurricane over the last few years: optimism.

It's time to see whether he can also bring some wins.

"I'm a very positive guy," said Kragthorpe, who'll make his coaching debut with the Golden Hurricane on Saturday at Minnesota. "I'm an optimist, otherwise I wouldn't have taken this job."

The Hurricane haven't had much to stay positive about in recent seasons. They opened last year with seven straight losses en route to a dismal 1-11 record, their lone win coming against lowly Texas-El Paso. This summer, starting quarterback Tyler Gooch announced he was transferring to Oklahoma to pursue a baseball career.

Now, the Hurricane must open the season against an up-and-coming Big Ten team.

"We've got our hands full. There's no question about it," said Kragthorpe, a former Buffalo Bills assistant who was hired in December to replace Keith Burns.

The Gophers insist they're not looking past Tulsa. But they do acknowledge there's no excuse for not beating the rebuilding Golden Hurricane.

"It's something we don't take lightly," senior quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq said. "Just because we don't play the No. 1 team or something like that in the preseason doesn't mean it's a guaranteed win."

Tulsa is the first of four soft nonconference games on the Gophers' 2003 schedule. Like last season, the Gophers are hoping to take advantage of the weak lineup and build momentum heading into the Big Ten season.

This time, though, they'd like to avoid stalling against Big Ten competition. The Gophers finished 3-5 in conference play, yet earned a berth in the Music City Bowl, where they scored a surprising victory over Arkansas.

With Abdul-Khaliq and their trio of running backs healthy again, the defense a year older and the memory of the bowl victory on their minds, the Gophers seem to have everything in place to make a run at the Big Ten title this year.

But first on the list is Tulsa.

With Gooch gone, junior quarterback James Kilian gets the start. Kilian has played in 13 career games with two starts.

The lone bright spot of Tulsa's offense has been running back Eric Richardson. Last year, Richardson, who's led the team in rushing the past two seasons, fell just 43 yards shy of becoming the first 1,000-yard rusher for Tulsa since 1997.

But rushing is also a strength of Minnesota's. Saturday will mark the return of sophomore tailback Marion Barber III, who received a medical redshirt last season after an impressive freshman year.

Barber, bruising fullback Thomas Tapeh and 1,000-yard rusher Terry Jackson II should give Minnesota one of the best running games in the nation.

"A three-headed monster," Kragthorpe said.

The Gophers' passing game -- wideout Aaron Hosack caught 29 passes for 649 yards and Ben Utecht is considered one of the top tight ends in the country -- isn't too shabby either.

The only setback so far has been the loss of wide receiver Paris Hamilton, a junior college transfer, to a season-ending knee injury.

But Gophers coach Glen Mason says the Gophers were already preparing for the possibility of playing without Hamilton.

"We never had him," Mason said. "This sounds cold, but it's less of a loss because we haven't had him. We really haven't been counting on having him."

Even without Hamilton, the Gophers figure to have a strong offense to go along with an improved defensive line and a pass defense that was tops in the Big Ten last year.

Not so encouraging for a Tulsa team in search of confidence. But Kragthorpe remains optimistic.

"I'm a big believer that confidence is a byproduct of preparation and I think our players have done a super job of preparing themselves throughout the course of the last eight months," he said.

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Andres Ybarra can be reached at aybarra(at)ap.org.

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index

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