Their Michigan memories won’t soon fade, but the Gophers have had their fill of talking about the Little Brown Jug.
When last seen, Sept. 27, the Gophers were reclaiming that seldom-seen trophy and buckling it into a first-class seat for the flight home. Now, they better buckle up again, to avoid the kind of letdown that permeates college football each week.
Northwestern (3-2, 2-0 Big Ten) is heading to TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday, coming off program-resurrecting victories over Penn State and Wisconsin. The Gophers are favored — by only three points.
A bye last week gave the Gophers (4-1, 1-0) a little extra time to savor the Michigan win, but coach Jerry Kill said the players had their usual focus by last Tuesday’s practice.
“You always wonder [how they’ll handle a big victory], whether it’s a younger team or a veteran team,” Kill said. “But I had no inkling of that whatsoever, the way we approached Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday.”
History told the Gophers that Northwestern would be tough. The Wildcats were 5-1 in their previous six meetings against Minnesota before limping into last year’s game in Evanston, Ill. — a 20-17 Gophers victory.
Northwestern spiraled to a 1-7 Big Ten finish last year and started this season with losses to California and Northern Illinois.
“I think if you look at us, you would say we struggled, too,” Kill said of his team’s season-opening victories over Eastern Illinois and Middle Tennessee State. “Sometimes early in the year for whatever reason — timing, continuity, injuries — sometimes you get off to a slow start.
“I think the key is that you keep improving each week, and … as you hit the Big Ten, just keep climbing the mountain. There are certain teams in our league that do a heck of a job of that. Iowa does a good job of that each year.”
But sometimes teams on the rise are prone to letdowns.
The biggest one in recent Gophers history came in 2000, when Glen Mason’s squad knocked off then-No. 6 Ohio State, only to lose the following week to a 2-4 Indiana team.
This year, Virginia Tech upset Ohio State one week before losing to East Carolina. Indiana stunned Missouri and then lost 37-15 to Maryland. Then there’s Utah, another team that celebrated a victory at Michigan this year, only to trip the following week — as 13-point favorites against Washington State.
The Gophers have to be careful not to fall into the same trap, especially knowing three consecutive winnable games — against Northwestern, Purdue and Illinois — could push them to 7-1.
“Coach Kill always does a great job with that because he always makes sure the next game’s always the biggest game,” senior center Tommy Olson said. “You celebrate for 24 hours, and you put it behind you. And if it’s a loss, you think about it for 24 hours and then you put it behind you.”
The bye week might have halted the Gophers’ momentum, but it was well-timed because of the team’s mounting injuries. Kill said David Cobb, who ranks sixth in the nation with 144.4 rushing yards per game, was among 12 or 13 players who sat out of practice last week.
“He was banged up a little after the Michigan game, and we didn’t do a lot with him until Sunday,” Kill said. “But Sunday he was full-speed again. He went back to work.”
The team also has been careful with quarterback Mitch Leidner, who has a sprained MCL in his left knee and turf toe. But Leidner still practiced last week and even busted off an 85-yard run during a two-minute drill Thursday.
“Everyone was just giving him grief, saying, ‘Mitch still has it! The freight train’s back!’ All good stuff. That was fun,” tight end Maxx Williams said. “I think Mitch got his confidence back against Michigan.”
The whole team is riding high, but the Gophers can flash back to 2008 for another quick history lesson. They were 7-1 that year and ranked No. 20 when an unranked Northwestern came to town and beat them 24-17. Tim Brewster’s squad didn’t win another game until 2009.
Kill has rebuilt the program, and Gophers fans have certainly enjoyed drinking up the Little Brown Jug. But a loss to Northwestern would leave those same fans spitting in disgust.