Gophers' favorite homecoming patsy up next

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 27, 2008 - 10:42 AM

By more than double any other team, Northwestern has been Minnesota's opponent of choice for Homecoming.

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald has not made a big deal about being a frequent Homecoming opponent, while Gophers coach Tim Brewster has used it as a motivational ploy about his team getting no respect. Guess who’s the Gophers’ Homecoming opponent this week? Northwestern.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

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Coach Tim Brewster made it clear to his football team that the Gophers were being treated with sizable disrespect by being designated as Illinois' Homecoming opponent Oct. 12.

The Gophers then went to Champaign-Urbana and came home with a 27-20 upset. Defensive end Willie VanDeSteeg was the difference maker in that game, to the point he was selected as national defensive player of the week.

The success of Brewster's selling job on the indignity of being a Homecoming opponent came through a few days later.

VanDeSteeg was overheard being interviewed during a hometown broadcast for his high school team, the Glencoe-Silver Lake Panthers. One reason Willie offered for the fervor with which he played was that it wasn't very respectful for the Illini to designate the Gophers as a Homecoming opponent.

That was the case again Saturday, when the Gophers played at Purdue. Again, Brewster saw a lack of respect in this, and the Gophers responded with a 17-6 victory that vaulted them to 3-1 in the Big Ten, 7-1 when you include the nonconference cupcakes, and to the No. 20 rating in Sunday's national polls and 17 in the BCS.

The Gophers return to the Metrodome this Saturday to face Northwestern, and if any football program should feel disrespected by being designated as Homecoming opponents it should be the Wildcats.

If Illinois and Purdue went into deep analysis before deciding the Gophers were to suffer the disdain of being the 2008 Homecoming opponents, then we can assume there were consultations between Brewster and athletic director Joel Maturi in making the Gophers' Homecoming choice.

This was a program coming off the worst losing season in school history at 1-11, so there had to be angst in answering the question:

"Which Big Ten team visiting Minneapolis this fall do we absolutely feel we have the greatest chance to defeat in the Homecoming finale inside our beloved Metrodome?''

Conclusion: Northwestern.

Not surprisingly, Indiana made the same decision after looking at its schedule, and the Wildcats went into Bloomington on Saturday and played the perfect Homecoming chumps.

The Hoosiers had lost five in a row, and Northwestern was 6-1 and had ascended to No. 24 in the coaches' poll. The final was 21-19 for Indiana, with Northwestern losing three fumbles and quarterback C.J. Bacher throwing two interceptions.

And the 'Cats were able to provide this Homecoming benevolence even with Indiana missing its key player, quarterback Kellen Lewis.

What we have here is an undeniable contrast between Saturday's coaches:

Our guy Brew, the relentless motivator, has been able to convince his team it was being "extremely, extremely disrespected'' by being chosen in back-to-back games as a Homecoming opponent, while the youngster at Northwestern, Pat Fitzgerald, has not been able to weed out the humiliation that has followed the Wildcats after decades of being the Homecoming foe of choice in the Big Ten.

Northwestern was the opponent for the final Homecoming game at Memorial Stadium. Joe Salem's Gophers won 35-23, a feat Smokey Joe was able to accomplish only three more times in the 24 Big Ten games he coached after that.

And now the Gophers are leaving another stadium and again embracing the Wildcats as the Homecoming wastrels.

There will be 28 Homecomings from the last in Memorial Stadium to the last in the Metrodome. This will be Northwestern's 10th time as the opponent, compared to four apiece for Indiana, Purdue and Michigan State, and two apiece for Wisconsin, Ohio State and Illinois.

And here are a couple more fun facts:

This will be Northwestern's 11th trip to Minnesota since 1981, and only once -- when the game was the Big Ten opener on Sept. 25, 2004 -- have the Wildcats not been chosen as Homecoming opponents.

You have to go back to 1975 to find an October or November visit by Northwestern when it wasn't chosen as the Gophers' Homecoming opponent.

One can only imagine the number of extremelys it would take for Coach Brewster to describe to his athletes the disrespect of being selected as a rival program's Homecoming opponent whenever possible for 33 years.

Patrick Reusse can be heard weekdays on AM-1500 KSTP at 6:45 and 7:45 a.m. and 4:40 p.m. • preusse@startribune.com

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