MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- Heading into Big Ten play this weekend, the Minnesota Golden Gophers are the most unproven unbeaten team in the conference.
This year's team is the 28th in school history to start out 4-0, although that was never a far-fetched idea with Toledo of the Mid-American Conference being its toughest pre-conference opponent.
"Starting the Big Ten season is a whole new thing," said quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq. "New competition, better competition."
Case in point: Close losses by Purdue, this week's opponent, to unbeaten Notre Dame and Wake Forest look impressive when compared to Minnesota's blowout wins over small conference opponents Southwest Texas State, Louisiana-Lafayette and Buffalo.
The Boilermakers represent the Gophers' toughest challenge so far this season. And it gets tougher.
After home games against Illinois and Northwestern, Minnesota -- which finished last season tied for last in the Big Ten with a 2-6 conference record -- will be in for a grind with back-to-back road games at Michigan State and Ohio State. The Gophers close out the season with home games against Michigan and Iowa, and finish on the road at Wisconsin.
Minnesota is one of four undefeated Big Ten teams this season, although two of the other teams have beaten Top 25 opponents -- Penn State beat Nebraska 40-7 and Ohio State defeated Washington State 25-7 last weekend. Wisconsin hasn't beaten a ranked foe yet, but went 5-0 on a pre-conference schedule that included West Virginia and Arizona.
The Gophers, who received a tongue-lashing after last weekend's lackadaisical win against overmatched Buffalo, know they can't afford to let their guard down again this season.
"If we give them any breathing room, the caliber of teams that we're playing now, we won't have a chance to win," safety Eli Ward said. "Once we have a team down in the Big Ten, we have to keep them down."
Against Buffalo, Minnesota went up 31-0, but allowed the Bulls to score two touchdowns before halftime, which angered Mason.
"We lost our focus, we lost our intensity, we lost momentum, which is the most important thing," Mason said.
Overall, Mason said he's pleased with the effort of his young defense, but added he's still concerned about defending the run and tackling.
"That's the most glaring weakness we've had," he said.
The defense's inexperience showed against Toledo, as last year's MAC champions ran the ball for 233 yards and threw for 195. Still, Minnesota ranks fourth in the conference against the run, with opponents averaging 98 yards a game on the ground.
The Gophers' defense ranks first among Big Ten teams against the pass.
"We've got to continue to find ways to pressure the quarterback, and we have to continue to get turnovers," Mason said.
Minnesota's strength remains its offense. Abdul-Khaliq leads the nation in pass efficiency (185.8) and is tied for sixth in points responsible for, averaging 18 a game.
The running game still hasn't found its groove yet with Marion Barber III working his way back into the lineup after injuring his hamstring and sophomore Terry Jackson II leading the team in rushing. Minnesota's 244 rushing yards per game is second in the conference behind Iowa's 271.5.
But critics again point out that Minnesota's yards were gained against smaller, overwhelmed defenses, while Ohio State, which ranks third behind the Gophers in rushing, had success running the ball against the likes of No. 10 Washington State.
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