The rental house Mitch Leidner shared with three Gophers teammates last season turned into a hunting shrine, as if a taxidermist had served as the decorator.
“We had two deer heads, a bear head, a fox, couple pheasants, a turkey and a couple fish,” Gophers lineman Jonah Pirsig said. “It looked like a Cabela’s in there.”
They had some football memorabilia, too, including mini replicas of the Little Brown Jug and Floyd of Rosedale trophies earned early in their Gophers careers.
In 2013, after an ugly loss at Michigan Stadium, linebacker Jack Lynn predicted the Gophers would win the rematch. Pirsig wrote that down and hung the piece of paper on his bedroom wall, keeping the treasured artifact when the prediction came true in 2014.
But with no signature victories last season, and little time to hunt, the house’s décor grew stale. Fortunately, the Big Ten season is here, so Leidner, Pirsig and friends can go big game hunting again.
The Gophers (3-0) will visit a reeling Penn State team Saturday, hoping to disenchant the crowd at 106,572-seat Beaver Stadium and re-create a scene similar to 2014 victories in Ann Arbor, Mich., and Lincoln, Neb.
Those were unexpected triumphs. The Gophers were a double-digit underdog in both games, but Penn State (2-2) is a mere 2½-point favorite, coming off a 49-10 loss last week at Michigan.
“I think they’re a lot better football team than they showed at Michigan,” Gophers coach Tracy Claeys said. “I mean, our first year , when we went into Michigan, it was over by the first quarter. I was ready to go home. Sometimes things snowball. I don’t think any team deserves to be judged by one game.”
No, but one win can bolster a coach’s credibility. Jerry Kill’s stock soared in 2013, when the Gophers defeated Nebraska for the first time in 53 years, before winning the Victory Bell from Penn State two weeks later. Fans were even more sold after those wins at Michigan and Nebraska the following fall.
When Kill resigned because of health reasons last October, Claeys became interim head coach, with three days to prepare for Michigan.
The Gophers almost delivered Claeys one of the quickest signature wins in coaching history. But trailing 29-26, they advanced to Michigan’s 1-yard line with 19 seconds remaining and failed to score.
Claeys is 5-4 as a head coach, but the wins have come against Illinois, Central Michigan, Oregon State, Indiana State and Colorado State. Those haven’t moved the needle much for fans. To gain the soaring popularity Kill enjoyed, Claeys needs to start mounting some helmets.
Penn State’s classic helmet — plain white, with the navy blue stripe — would be a start. The program that went 409-136 under Joe Paterno is trying to rebuild from the Jerry Sandusky scandal. James Franklin went 7-6 his first two seasons, and fans are concerned this one won’t be much better.
“James is not on any hot seat,” athletic director Sandy Barbour told the Altoona Mirror this week.
But as David Jones wrote for PennLive.com, “Franklin and his staff are going to earn their money in these next two weeks or they may not be earning it here that much longer. The Minnesota and Maryland games, dates that in other years would have been appraised as breathers in the schedule, now become gravely vital.”
Despite the other struggles, the Nittany Lions are still 8-1 in their past nine home games and have an all-time winning percentage of .792 at the hulking stadium near Mount Nittany.
The Gophers haven’t played at Penn State since 2009, so no current players have been in State College to hear the crowd roar, “We are … Penn State!”
“It’s going to be unique,” Leidner said. “We’ve got some young guys who haven’t played in a place like that, and for that to be their first away game as well — it’s going to be interesting.”
Leidner has done some of his best work in hostile environments. He still remembers the overwhelming noise on Minnesota’s first third-down play when he started as a redshirt freshman at Michigan in 2013.
But Leidner led the Gophers to those wins at Michigan and Nebraska in 2014. He even played well in last season’s losses at Ohio State (before 108,075) and Iowa (70,585), completing 64.5 percent of his passes with three touchdowns and one interception.
The Gophers prepared for the noise by moving practice indoors this week, cranking their sound system to 11.
“It’s preparation and getting comfortable on offense right away,” Leidner said. “You can get out and make some plays, make something happen to maybe quiet the crowd down a little bit.”
That’s what players remember most about big road victories — the silence. Leidner and Pirsig, now seniors, haven’t experienced that for a while. But with a slate that will take them back to Nebraska and Wisconsin’s Camp Randall Stadium this fall, they’re leaving plenty of room on their walls.