Joe Christensen covered Major League Baseball for 15 years, including three seasons at the Baltimore Sun and eight at the Star Tribune, before switching to the college football beat. He’s a Faribault, Minn., native who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1996. He covered Jim Wacker’s Gophers for the Minnesota Daily and also wrote about USC, UCLA and the Rose Bowl for the Riverside Press-Enterprise before getting this chance to cover football again.
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It's big, no doubt about it. Says so right in its name: the Big House. And yeah, 110,000 football fans crammed into those endless acres of bleachers is an impressive sight.
But Michael Amaefula has a question for all those thousands of Michigan ticket-holders: Where's your giant TV?
"Oh my gosh, that was amazing. You have to try not to look up at it," the Gophers' freshman defensive end said of the most memorable stadium he's ever played in: The new Cowboys Stadium in his hometown of Arlington, Texas. "I can't imagine a bigger" stadium.
He won't have to imagine it after Saturday, though, and he can't wait. Amaefula and his teammates are looking forward to the challenge of beating Michigan, and just the experience of playing on such familiar turf.
"Any fan of college football would love it. When you get the chance to play there, you're more excited than ever," said sophomore cornerback Brock Vereen. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
Actually, now that Michigan and Minnesota are both members of the Big Ten's Legends Division, there won't be any more breaks in the series like there were the past two seasons, so Vereen should get another trip to Ann Arbor in 2013. But his point is a good one -- the atmosphere in the Wolverines' 85-year-old home will be unique.
"It's my first time. Growing up as a Big Ten fan, it's going to be an awesome experience," said senior center Ryan Wynn, who plans to walk around the stadium a few hours before kickoff, just to soak the flavor of a stadium he said he's seen on TV "millions of times" over the year. "Hopefully, we can shock them."
The official capacity of Michigan Stadium, since its most recent expansion last year, is 109,901, and the Wolverines haven't played at home before fewer than 100,000 fans since 1975. Michigan has led the nation in attendance 35 times in 36 years, and two weeks ago set a new attendance record of 114,804 for its victory over Notre Dame, the stadium's first night game.
"The stands just keep on going forever, it seems like," said Kim Royston, who played there in 2006 while with Wisconsin. "It's not as loud as Wisconsin or Penn State, but it's definitely bigger. I'm definitely excited to play there."
Still, Royston said, there's a danger there, too. Many teams are intimidated, or at least distracted, by their surroundings.
"It's a great atmosphere to play in, and you definitely look forward to these opportunities," he said. "But we're not there to be in awe of the stadium, we're there to win a game."
Running back Donnell Kirkwood has already given that some thought. "It's probably going to get to me during warmups and maybe kickoff, but after that, everything will get tuned out by the game," Kirkwood said. "It always does."
Amaefula knows that from experience, too. He recalls playing in front of 80,000 fans at Cowboys Stadium -- for a high-school playoff game. "That's Texas football," he said with a smile.
He expects Saturday's game, in an icon of college football, to be an even better experience.
"A college atmosphere is different. High school fans love their schools, but a lot of them are parents, just trying to watch the game," he said. "In college, the stands are alive."
Especially when the home team wins -- which is one part of the experience the Gophers would like to pass up.
Wynn, for instance, enjoys the familiarity of home games, but said road games in this conference are meaningful because of all the history -- not to mention the hostile crowds.
"I almost love playing away games. The energy, you kind of feed off it when you're the enemy," Wynn said. "There's nothing better than silence in [an opponent's] stadium. I hope I can hear crickets chirping by the time the game's over."
It was second-and-nine during the Gophers' first drive of the season when coach Jerry Kill called his new placekicker, Chris Hawthorne, over. Minnesota had moved the ball to USC's 36-yard line, and Kill wanted to see how Hawthorne was feeling about his surroundings: bright day, big crowd, opening-day jitters.
"He asked me if I thought we were in range" for a field goal, Hawthorne said. "I didn't know how far it was; I never look at the distances. But I said I was pretty confident from there."
The Gophers gained only a couple of yards on the next two plays, and Kill accepted Hawthorne's answer. On came the sophomore to try a 51-yard field goal, the first of his Minnesota career. And what happened next has taught him, bugged him and driven him this week.
The snap and hold were perfect, Hawthorne said, but plenty of other things went wrong. USC got a good push on the line, with a couple of linemen moving a step or two closer to the ball. And one of them, Matt Kalil, got his fingers on the ball as it flew past, foiling Hawthorne's kick.
"I thought I hit it really well, and it just didn't get it up in the air quick enough, I guess," Hawthorne said. "There was a little bit of penetration on the line, but I needed to get it higher. It would have been nice for that first one to go in, because if we make that, it's a big momentum change."
Considering the Gophers lost by two, 19-17, any field goal would have been critical. Hawthorne hit a 21-yard field goal in the second quarter and both extra points after Gopher touchdowns, so the short ones were no problem. But he also missed a 42-yard try on the final play of the first half that, with USC's defense again getting a good push, never got the loft required to get there.
"One was blocked and the second had a lot of pressure, so we've got to get that fixed," Kill said. "I'm disappointed in the way it was executed, so it's my job to get it fixed."
Hawthorne said he's well on his way, that the Gophers have used what they learned to make adjustments. From that standpoint, especially considering his lack of collegiate field-goal tries, the experience of playing at USC will help.
"I've been put in situations my entire career where it's easier to perform, and to go out there to California and be put under the pressure cooker, it's a good thing," said Hawthorne, who made one field goal at N.C. State last year before transferring to Minnesota. "I was really eager to get back out here on Tuesday and start hitting them again. It's similar to a quarterback -- you make a bad throw, you want to get back out there. i've been hitting them all week."
And despite the disappointment, and the knowledge that making one of those long ones may have changed the outcome, Hawthorne did take away one memorable highlight from his trip to USC: His first collegiate tackle.
After nailing the short second-quarter field goal, Hawthorne kicked off to Robert Woods, the electrifying receiver who returned a kickoff for a touchdown against the Gophers' last season. The Trojan back sliced through Minnesota's coverage and broke outside, where Hawthorne hit him, then dragged him down at the 35.
"It was kind of a freak situation. I've never had to do that before," said Hawthorne, who had one tackle in his high school career. "I just about missed him -- he shifted at the last second, but I was able to hit him."
The Gophers' third scrimmage of the fall looks a lot like the first two: Lots of mistakes to look at on the film.
Too bad this one counts.
Jerry Kill's first half as Gopher coach probably didn't do much for his blood pressure, as Minnesota fell behind 19-3. . The first play from scrimmage was whistled dead for a false start penalty, and things didn't get much better from there.
The Gophers were penalized twice for delay of game and once for too many men on the field -- a quick timeout prevented a second one of those -- and the offense frequently looked confused. A pair of long field goals were tipped, costing the Gophers points.
But they had some good moments, too, most notably an 11-yard third-down completion to Malcolm Moulton that kept their lone scoring drive alive. When the drive ended on the four, Chris Hawthorne kicked a 21-yard field goal.
Meanwhile, USC began its Heisman campaign for sophomore wide receiver Robert Woods, who gained 115 yards and scored all three Trojans touchdowns in the first half. Quarterback Matt Barkley completed 18 of 20 passes, 11 of them to Woods.
Minnesota had 131 total yards by halftime, compared to 200 for USC, 163 of them through the air. MarQueis Gray completed 5 of 9 passes for 63 yards, and gained 29 yards on the ground.
LOS ANGELES -- Jerry Kill may wish he was home today, but Gopher fans who traveled here for the season opener might disagree.
The weather in Southern California is perfect for football, as usual: High 70s, sunny, and with a light breeze keeping things cool.
The press box has a beautiful view of downtown L.A. and the Hollywood Hills behind it; reminds me of last year's opener, with the foothills in the distance in Murfreesboro, Tenn.
The Gophers are in their standard road uniforms, white tops and maroon pants, and as always happens at road games, you wonder where the rest of the team is. College teams travel only 70 players, so one-third of the team is back in Minneapolis, watching on TV.
Among them: linebacker Brendan Beal, who suffered a knee injury on the final play -- well, what turned out to be the final play, when he went down -- of Wednesday's practice. The severity of his injury hasn't been determined yet, but the Gophers fear he will miss a substantial amount of time. Tough break for a kid who already has missed a season with a torn knee ligament.
At 255 pounds, John Clay is almost certainly the biggest tailback the Gophers will face this season, and poses a challenge that's difficult to prepare for. But D.L. Wilhite has lots of experience in dealing with a jumbo back.
Well, sort of. See, Wilhite used to be one.
"I was a 255-pound tailback in high school, so I kind of know what it's like to be John Clay," Wilhite said of his all-conference season at Bryan Station High in Lexington, Ky. "I know it takes a lot to bring you down."
It certainly did last season, when Clay, then a sophomore en route to Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year honors, scored three touchdowns against the Gophers while piling up 184 yards. Wilhite wasn't a starter last year, so he's looking forward to a few collisions with Clay in Madison.
"I've never had to tackle anyone that big. You just have to stick with your fundamentals and wrap up," the sophomore said. "It's tougher for the back-end guys once he gets a full head of steam, so it's up to us on the line to make sure he's cutting early and doesn't get momentum."
Does that prospect make this game particularly exciting for Minnesota's young defensive line?
"It doesn't take anything extra to get us excited this week. We're playing for the Axe," Wilhite said. "Just say 'Wisconsin,' that's enough to get us ready."
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