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Gophers kick off 2014 season against Eastern Illinois Thursday night

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The Gophers football team kicks off the 2014 season Thursday night against Eastern Illinois at TCF Bank Stadium. The game will be the first meeting between the Gophers and Panthers.

According to FOX Sports Net, Minnesota, who finished 8-5 last season, has set some pretty high goals for this year.

"We have the highest goals possible," redshirt sophomore quarterback Mitch Leidner said. "We want to win the Big Ten, win a Rose Bowl. We've just got to take it a step at a time. We've got game one first and then keep going from there."

After splitting time with Philip Nelson, who left the team after the loss to Syracuse in the Texas Bowl, Leidner enters the 2014 season as the unquestioned starting quarterback.

WCCO says Leidner will need to be the leader of the offense and will need to find chemistry with his receivers, including Maxx Williams, K.J. Maye and Drew Wolitarsky among others to improve a passing offense that finished last in the Big 10 last season.

David Cobb returns to the Gophers backfield. Last season his 1,202 yards on the ground made him the first Gopher running back to eclipse 1,000 yards in a single season since Amir Pinnix in 2006.

Cobb told reporters at Big 10 media day the team has set a goal to be 12-0. He thinks the offense will be much better.

"I definitely think our offense is 10 times better," Cobb said. "Going against our defense every day, those guys are great. I think they've got us prepared to play. We run the ball a lot better and we definitely pass the ball a lot better."

Defensively the Gophers expect the secondary to continue to be the strength of the defense. Even after graduating defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman and safety Brock Vereen the Gophers' defense could be improved off a team that allowed just 22.2 points per game, the fourth fewest in the Big 10.

But an improved team may not necessarily show up in the wins column. The schedule is much tougher with Ohio State back on the conference schedule and a non-conference game at Texas Christian University.

Before Minnesota can worry about those games they have to start with the first game against FCS opponent Eastern Illinois.

About Eastern Illinois

The Panthers were 12-2 last season and 8-0 in the Ohio Valley conference.

They are the type of team Minnesota has struggled with in the past. In fact, another FCS power, North Dakota State, beat Minnesota during Jerry Kill's first season as head coach.

Last year's quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is off to the NFL, but they should still have a dangerous passing game, as The Daily Gopher notes.

"The passing game will still be sharp for the Panthers as both senior receiver Adam Drake and senior tight end Jeff LePak will return. Both players were third team All-Americans in FCS last season and combined for over 2,000 receiving yards and 21 touchdowns."

The Panthers do return running back Shepherd Little. The junior ran for 1,563 yards and 15 touchdowns last season.

The Panthers are also a battle tested team on the road. Last year they defeated San Diego State 40-12 in San Diego, so don't expect the opener to be an easy Minnesota win.

Kickoff is Thursday night at 6 p.m.

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