Hartman: Gophers confidence is high ahead of big game with Badgers

  • Article by: SID HARTMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 22, 2013 - 6:33 AM

Defensive back Brock Vereen stands by his statement that the Gophers can play for the Big Ten title.

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Minnesota Gophers vs. Western Illinois Leathernecks football. Gophers receiver Maxx Williams picked up extra yards after a first half reception. (MARLIN LEVISON/STARTRIBUNE(mlevison@startribune.com)

One thing Gophers defensive back Brock Vereen and his teammates don’t lack is confidence since they chalked up four consecutive Big Ten victories, and that includes their belief in the team’s chance of upsetting a great Wisconsin team on Saturday.

Vereen early this season said the Gophers could win their division, and he hasn’t backed down from that statement.

Vereen was asked if he still thinks the Gophers can make the Big Ten Championship Game.

“Definitely,” said the senior from California. “We had two rough games early with Michigan and Iowa, but we have definitely bounced back, and it’s still a possibility. We’re rolling right now, and we definitely have the talent to do it. We just have to keep it up.”

His statement might give Wisconsin bulletin board material, but it indicates the Gophers, who have worked hard during their bye week, believe they can play with one of the best Badgers teams in history.

While the Minnesota offense has gotten a lot of praise recently, the defense has shown just as much improvement, shutting out Penn State in the second half of the most recent victory. Vereen gives all the credit for the defense’s turnaround to the coaching staff.

“[Defensive coordinator Tracy] Claeys gets us ready to play, he puts us in the right position, always,” Vereen said. “It’s just a matter of us making the tackles. It’s a big credit to him because it has been a drastic change of [opponents’] offenses [from week to week], but we have come in ready and focused.”

Vereen said the team was happy to have a second bye week so late in the season and before two very important games.

“The bye week has definitely come at a good time,” he said. “We aren’t as banged up as we were at the last bye week, but going into these last two games they will definitely be the most physical games out of all of them the whole season, so the bye week is going to be good for us.”

Vereen played offense at Valencia High School in California but was recruited to play defense.

His brother Shane Vereen is a standout running back for the New England Patriots, so Brock was asked if he talks football with his brother.

“We talk every single day, whether it be about football or just what is on TV,” Brock said. “He definitely has taught me a lot.”

Brock had three tackles against the Badgers last season in a 38-13 loss, and he hopes to improve on that come Saturday, something the Gophers will need to stop a powerful Wisconsin offense.

Alvarez didn’t listen

Around New Year’s Day in 1990, Barry Alvarez, a close personal friend of mine, asked advice from a number of coaches when he was offered the Wisconsin job — a position that had seen five coaches come and go in the 20 years before Alvarez was offered it.

He even asked me, at the suggestion of Lou Holtz, at the 1990 Orange Bowl between Colorado and Notre Dame, where Alvarez was working under Holtz as a defensive coordinator.

Because Wisconsin had been 6-27 the previous three seasons, I told him he’d be crazy to take the job.

Luckily for Alvarez he didn’t listen and took over as Wisconsin head coach in 1990. Alvarez had a rough first three years, going 11-22 and finishing 10th, eighth and sixth in the conference. But in 1993 Alvarez began a tremendous stretch of winning football that has made the Badgers Big Ten contenders almost every season.

In ’93, the Badgers went 10-1-1 and won their first Rose Bowl, 21-16 over UCLA. Starting with that ’93 season, the Badgers have posted a 183-77-4 record, including this year’s 8-2 mark.

What many people don’t know is that former Wisconsin Chancellor Donna Shalala, who had hired Alvarez at Wisconsin, wanted Alvarez and his staff to join her at Miami (Fla.) when she was ready to take over as president in June 2001. Alvarez and his entire coaching staff were ready to move to Miami to coach the Hurricanes but remained at Wisconsin because they were unable to negotiate salaries for Alvarez’s assistants at Miami.

The Badgers have won five Big Ten titles in those 20 years since Alvarez was hired and have gone 3-3 in their six Rose Bowl appearances. That number of appearances leads all Big Ten schools since 1993.

The Gophers have to hope that their hiring of Jerry Kill, who has said that he has modeled parts of his program after Alvarez’s work, will have similar success here in Minnesota.

Jottings

• Eurobasket.com named Trevor Mbakwe, who is playing for Virtus in Italy, its player of the week on Tuesday after the former Gophers basketball player had 23 points, 11 rebounds, two assists and a blocked shot in a loss to Granarolo last week.

• The word is that 9,000 students have bought tickets for the Wisconsin game on Saturday.

• One big matchup to watch for Saturday is the battle between Badgers center Dallas Lewallen and Gophers defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman. Lewallen will be making his first start in two games after dealing with a knee injury.

• We’ll know a lot more about the Gophers basketball team when it faces ninth-ranked Syracuse on Monday in Hawaii.

• Aaron Rodgers talked to the Wisconsin State Journal this week about when he might return to starting for the Packers: “I’m going to be back when I’m ready, when there’s a very low risk of reinjuring that. ... Obviously if you have another blow like I had, displacement of the collarbone could take three to five months of rehab.”

• Injuries have forced St. Cloud product Nate Wolters into the starting lineup for the Milwaukee Bucks, and he is averaging 8.3 points and five assists per game this season.

• The Timberwolves will face the Brooklyn Nets and former Wolves star Kevin Garnett tonight. Garnett is having a tough start to the season for Nets, who have struggled as a whole. Garnett is averaging a career-low 22.7 minutes per game and a career-low 6.6 points per game this year.

• Twins greats Rod Carew and Paul Molitor, as well as former Twins GM Andy MacPhail, are part of the 16-member committee that will meet Dec. 9 in Orlando to consider expansion-era candidates for the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The ballot has 12 names, including former Twins manager Billy Martin and Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.

 

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on 830-AM at 6:40, 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. shartman@startribune.com

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2014 season     
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