They’re separated by only 300 miles but seem to occupy different worlds.
Big city vs. college town. Hipster culture vs. agriculture. Young, energetic football coach vs. tried-and-true, consistent veteran.
And come 5:30 on Saturday evening, the worlds of Minnesota and Iowa collide when the Gophers invade Kinnick Stadium. At stake are bragging rights for another year and, of course, Floyd of Rosedale, the 98-pound bronze statue of a prized hog that will either stay in Iowa City or move north to Minneapolis.
A new chapter in the rivalry begins Saturday with P.J. Fleck in his first trophy game as Minnesota’s coach. An Illinois native, Fleck was somewhat familiar with the fight for Floyd, but he made it a point to learn more.
“That’s what this whole week is, is educating our players of how lucky they are to be in rivalries like this and educating what the rivalries are all about,” Fleck said. “You’re playing for more than just us. You’re playing for the tradition of the rivalry — everybody who played in it before you and our team, and everybody who’s going to play in it after you.”
Fleck was reminded quickly upon taking the Gophers job that beating Iowa — and Wisconsin — should be atop his priority list.
“I can’t tell you how many tweets I had, ‘Beat Iowa. Beat Wisconsin.’ That’s all they said,” he said. “And I had the typical, ‘Hey, if you only win two games all year, make sure you beat Iowa and Wisconsin.’ ”
Beating Iowa (4-3, 1-3 Big Ten) will be no easy task for the Gophers (4-3, 1-3). The Hawkeyes have won two in a row in the series, 12 of the past 16 and seven in a row in Iowa City. They feature a stingy defense led by All-America linebacker Josey Jewell, and that will be a challenge for sophomore quarterback Demry Croft, expected to make his first road start for the Gophers.
“All you’ve got to do is look at the scores of their games. Penn State’s putting half-a-hundred on everybody and they struggled against ’em,” Gophers offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca said of the Nittany Lions’ last-second, 21-19 win at Kinnick. “I’m a firm believer it’s the Jimmies and Joes, not the X’s and O’s. They’re living proof of that on defense. They’re not going to confuse you at all.
“The good news is you know where they are, the bad news is you know where they are.”
Kicking it up a notch
Gophers upperclassmen have been educating the newcomers about the rivalry, and senior tight end Nate Wozniak said that included a PowerPoint presentation to the younger tight ends. “We got them taught up on it,” he said.
Added senior defensive tackle Steven Richardson, who didn’t play in the Gophers’ 2015 visit to Iowa City because of injury: “It’s cool to see the freshmen and as they come in, they get to experience the rivalry. … It was a big experience for me. I’m just excited to see their stadium.”
Wozniak recalled that learning about Gophers vs. Hawkeyes helped nurture the intensity he now feels.
“It’s grown for me over the years,” he said. “I’m from Indiana, and I didn’t know the whole rivalry coming into it. Going to battle, every year we play these dudes, there’s always a little bit more hate in your heart than there is normally.”
Junior running back Rodney Smith recalled being taunted by a couple of Hawkeyes after fumbling in the Gophers’ 14-7 loss to Iowa last year. “You can feel the hate. It’s intense. You’ve got to respect every opponent. We respect Iowa, but there’s definitely hate between the two.”
Recruiting wars, too
The intensity isn’t limited to the players. In May, Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, a former Hawkeyes offensive lineman and the son of coach Kirk Ferentz, criticized the recruiting methods used by Fleck and Iowa State coach Matt Campbell, implying those programs extend scholarship offers they don’t intend to keep.
“The guys in Ames and the new guy in Minneapolis seem to have no problem throwing early things out. ... We’ll find out about the guys in Minneapolis, what does an offer really mean?” Ferentz said on a podcast hosted by the Des Moines Register.
During Big Ten media days in July, Fleck said he wouldn’t comment on rumors or untruths. “We can’t be worried about what everyone else says about us,” he said.
With such conflict as a backdrop, the Gophers will try to reclaim Floyd of Rosedale for the first time since 2015, when they rolled over the Hawkeyes 51-14 in Minneapolis. Wozniak remembers it well.
“It was the first time I really got to play. So just being able to be part of that win was huge,” he said. “It was amazing with everybody running on the field and grabbing that pig afterward.”