Gophers coach Jerry Kill had the words posted inside the locker room this week, knowing how much they rile up his team.
Back in January, a writer for the Big Ten Network’s website (BTN.com), responded to a reader who asked how many years in a row Minnesota needs to beat Nebraska to earn respect?
“Yes, Minnesota has beaten Nebraska the last two seasons,” Tom Dienhart wrote. “I love what Jerry Kill is doing in the Twin Cities. But past performance has no bearing on future performance. I still think the Huskers have more talent than the Gophers — and will each season until the end of the earth.”
Kill thinks that undersells his team’s talent and has referenced the quote repeatedly. The Gophers will look to further legitimize themselves Saturday, when Nebraska visits before an expected overflow crowd at TCF Bank Stadium.
“I think they’ve got enough motivation,” Kill said of his players. “I think there have been comments that we wouldn’t have as good of players as Nebraska for eternity, something like that. So if you can’t get motivated to play, then you shouldn’t be playing the game.”
The Cornhuskers are 2-4, but the four losses all have been heartbreakers; they have led or been tied in all six games with 11 seconds remaining in regulation.
It’s been a disappointing season for a proud program, but that doesn’t diminish what a third consecutive victory in the series would mean for the Gophers. Before this run started, Minnesota was 0-16 against Nebraska, dating to 1960.
A budding rivalry has formed, one that got a late start since Nebraska didn’t join the Big Ten until 2011. It’s been enough to get ever-polite Jon Christenson, the Gophers senior left guard, spouting words that could wind up on Nebraska’s bulletin board.
“They’ve got some really good interior D-linemen,” Christenson said. “The nice thing is, we’ve actually gone against them the last two years and pushed them all over the place. That definitely gives us a lot of confidence going in.”
Two memorable Saturdays
The Gophers rushed for 271 yards when they defeated Nebraska 34-23 in 2013. Christenson said that game might be No. 1 on his list of favorite career memories.
“I was the starting center that day; we pounded them,” he said. “We just ran the ball all over them. Then, of course, the fans stormed the field afterwards, which was amazing.”
Last year at Nebraska, the Gophers rushed for 281 yards but trailed 21-7 at halftime. David Cobb strained a hamstring in the third quarter, but the Gophers still fought back to grab a 28-24 lead on Mitch Leidner’s touchdown run with 3:25 remaining.
Nebraska threatened late, but Briean Boddy-Calhoun stripped the ball from De’Mornay Pierson-El at the Gophers 2-yard line, preserving the win.
Leidner said it was his second favorite career moment, with last year’s victory at Michigan being No. 1. The point is, those are the wins that resonate most with players, the victories over traditional powers.
“It’s amazing the difference between two years ago,” Christenson said. “We hadn’t beaten [Nebraska in 53] years and then, beating them two years in a row — we’re all excited and can’t wait.
“They’re good. We obviously acknowledge that. We’re going to go in gunning, just like they are.”
The key could be Minnesota’s ability to pass. Nebraska ranks eighth in the nation in rushing defense (95.3 yards allowed per game) and last in the nation against the pass (348.5).
Kill felt the Gophers reclaimed their identity as a power-rushing team last week, when they ran for 326 yards at Purdue, but they still rank 105th nationally in passing offense (176.5).
Even Wisconsin ditched its typical run-first approach last week, letting Joel Stave heave 50 passes in its 23-21 victory at Nebraska.
“I can’t speak for [Wisconsin], but Nebraska’s a good, good defense,” Gophers offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. “They are strong and physical in the front four, and they are going to make you earn every yard.”
New trophy game?
Whichever team wins, it’ll be interesting to see if the players embrace the trophy introduced to the rivalry last year. It’s called the $5 Bits of Broken Chair Trophy.
It started with a Twitter post from the mascot, @GoldytheGopher, to @FauxPelini, the popular parody account of former Nebraska coach Bo Pelini. Goldy suggested a friendly wager, and @FauxPelini replied, “OK how about if we win you give me $5, if you win I get to smash a wooden chair over your back.”
The mascot showed up in Lincoln with a homemade trophy, featuring a broken chair lying sideways atop a wooden base. Gophers punter Peter Mortell was photographed hoisting the prize afterward.
Eight days later, after Pelini was fired, Mortell tweeted the photo and wrote: “The new Nebraska coach will inherit the hottest trophy game in all of college football.”
Maybe it sounds hokey. Maybe this Big Ten West rivalry seems too new for a traveling trophy. Then again, Michigan and Minnesota still were getting to know each other in 1903, when Fielding Yost forgot his jug.