Winning Floyd back from Iowa is a heavy Gophers' burden

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 28, 2013 - 7:49 AM

Jerry Kill and his players realize what Floyd means.

 

The players might be bigger and stronger now than when the Floyd of Rosedale Trophy — the actual 98.3-pound bronzed pig — was first introduced to the Minnesota/Iowa rivalry in 1936. But watch the celebration Saturday, and you’ll probably still see multiple players holding it.

“I had no idea how heavy it was until it was too late,” said Gophers senior Brock Vereen, who first hoisted Floyd as a freshman in 2010. “I almost threw out my back, honestly. It hurt. You have to lift with your knees when you’re dealing with the pig.”

Vereen got to lift Floyd again in 2011, when the Gophers stunned Iowa for the second consecutive year at TCF Bank Stadium, the proudest moment of another 3-9 season.

Last year, the Gophers packed Floyd in their equipment truck, along with a 4-0 record, and traveled to Iowa City, fully expecting the trophy to return with them. Instead, the Hawkeyes jumped to a 24-0 halftime lead, behind 155 yards from bruising running back Mark Weisman, and coasted to a 31-13 win.

“When we were 4-0 last year, we got comfortable,” Vereen said. “We hadn’t been punched in the mouth, really. So we’ve learned from that. We understand now that the Big Ten is an entirely new season.”

The Gophers are 4-0 again heading into Saturday’s game with 3-1 Iowa at TCF Bank Stadium, but they believe they are tougher physically and mentally this year.

They looked overwhelmed by the atmosphere last year at Kinnick Stadium, with 70,585 fans dressed mostly in black and gold. This one will be a sellout for Minnesota, meaning 50,805 fans will pack the 5-year-old brick stadium for the first time since last September’s game against Syracuse.

Gophers coach Jerry Kill said University President Eric Kaler already had Iowa on his mind last Saturday, while celebrating the victory over San Jose State.

“I’ve got a lot of stuff on my mind after a game,” Kill said. “I think [Kaler] said, ‘Good win — and I’d sure like to have that pig back.’ … You ask all those questions about if it’s important or not. I think that pretty much sums it up. It’s important.”

The Hawkeyes went 4-8 last year, finishing with six consecutive losses. But after watching them lose 30-27 to Northern Illinois in Week 1, Kill noted how improved Iowa looked. The Hawkeyes defeated Missouri State and Iowa State the next two weeks before stampeding Western Michigan 59-3 last Saturday.

Injuries decimated Iowa’s offensive line after the Minnesota victory last year, spurring the late-season collapse. Now that group is healthier, and Weisman ranks second in the Big Ten in rushing, averaging 117 yards per game.

But 15th-year Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz led this team to an 11-2 finish and an Orange Bowl victory just four years ago, so he’s far from satisfied.

“I think we’re making strides,” he said. “We’re not there yet by any stretch.”

Both teams finished 2-6 in Big Ten play last year. That’s the true measure for most fans, with the nonconference schedule mere window dressing. The Gophers also went 2-6 in the Big Ten in 2011, Kill’s first season, and he talked all offseason about the need to improve that mark.

“Coach Kill has done a great job letting us know we’re not 4-0, we’re 0-0,” Vereen said. “This is Iowa Week, a rivalry game. Anything you’ve done up to this point means nothing.”

But Vereen sees more merit to this year’s 4-0 start than last year’s. This one has featured “about half as many mistakes,” he said. The Gophers have committed three turnovers, tying them with Illinois for the fewest in the Big Ten, and 10 penalties, the fewest in the conference.

Last year, they had four turnovers in the Iowa game alone. Now, with Philip Nelson recovering from a hamstring injury, redshirt freshman quarterback Mitch Leidner is expected to make his first Big Ten start.

Leidner has yet to throw an interception, but he’s only had 20 passing attempts. The Gophers have had him run more than twice that much, as he’s racked up 46 carries for 251 yards.

Iowa’s trademark has long been its strength and fundamental skill along the offensive and defensive lines. The Gophers have re-established their identity as a determined running team. They have 16 rushing touchdowns this year, and now they’ll face an Iowa team that has yet to allow a rushing score.

“They’ve got some big guys [on defense],” Gophers running back Rodrick Williams said. “They’re physical and stuff like that.”

If the Gophers win, it would add legitimacy to their nonconference start and send them to Michigan next week with a 5-0 record for the first time since 2004. Vereen still remembers the frenzied celebrations after the victories over Iowa in 2010 and ’11.

“It was electric,” he said. “It was a strong reminder that games like that aren’t just for the team but for the state.”

And this time, if he gets to lift Floyd, he knows the proper technique to use.

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