Before Kirk Ciarrocca started his session with the media Wednesday, the Gophers offensive coordinator jokingly asked if The Patriot-News was present.
That’s his hometown newspaper out of Harrisburg, Pa., just 90 minutes away from University Park and the home of Saturday’s opponent, Penn State.
“When I was growing up, I’m pretty sure I had Nittany Lion pajamas,” Ciarrocca said. “I got to go to, like, one or two games growing up, loved it. Just about everybody where I grew up is a Penn State fan. So it’s kind of funny this week. There’s probably a lot of people in central PA that will be rooting for hopefully the Gophers instead, maybe the first time in their life.”
The Ciarrocca contingent will, at least. And Joe Rossi, the Gophers defensive coordinator, has Western Pennsylvania covered as a Pittsburgh native. Those two will face their home state’s pre-eminent team in one of the biggest games of their careers, when the No. 13 Gophers try to upset No. 5 Penn State in a showdown between 8-0 teams.
They’ll each have a tough task, with Rossi’s defense encountering a dual-threat quarterback [Sean Clifford] and playmaking receiver [KJ Hamler], and Ciarrocca’s offense battling one of the stingiest defenses in the nation.
Rossi, though, won’t have to deal with any childhood fandom.
“I’m going to sidestep this one; I was a Steelers fan,” Rossi joked. “But the thing I’ll say is, obviously, they had good teams. And at that point, I followed Pitt, I followed Penn State, I followed the Steelers. I was a football guy from the first time I watched the game, and I knew I wanted to coach since I was, like, 13 years old. I just love football.”
Coach P.J. Fleck signed a new seven-year, $33.25 million contract Tuesday, but that deal also took care of his 10 assistant coaches, raising their salary pool by $1.05 million next year, with another $200,000 added for 2021.
Rossi said this creates some stability, not only for the current staff and players but for future ones, because other teams already were using Fleck’s potential job candidacy against the Gophers in recruiting.
“It’s also great for my wife, which is the most important,” Rossi said. “Just me on a personal level, I’m not a move guy. … So I’d kind of like to stay, and it’s a great place to live.”
Ciarrocca nearly left this offseason to take a job at West Virginia but stayed because of his belief in what the Gophers were doing.
“Why I wanted to be on this level is to have these type of experiences and share these experiences with our players,” Ciarrocca said, adding developing the offense has been rewarding. “That’s why you come to a school like this. That’s why you want to coach in the Big Ten, to be involved in these kind of games.”
Senior Bowl invites
Rush end Carter Coughlin and linebacker Kamal Martin accepted invitations Wednesday to play in the Senior Bowl on Jan. 25 in Mobile, Ala. They’ll be the first Gophers to do so since Damarius Travis in 2017.
Coughlin, of Eden Prairie, has 28 tackles, including five for a loss, this year. Martin, of Burnsville, is tied for a team-high 46 tackles despite missing three games so far this season.
Martin appeared to injure his knee Oct. 19 at Rutgers and missed the Gophers’ next game. He is still a game-time decision for Saturday.
Even with temperatures projected for the mid-30s and the Gophers still advertising tickets available, the athletics department is confident in a sellout for Saturday’s game.
The Gophers haven’t sold out a game at TCF Bank Stadium since a 31-21 loss to Wisconsin in 2015.