Few Gophers fireworks likely in finale against stingy Spartans

MINNEAPOLIS — The Gophers football team knew it was facing
two of the toughest defenses in the Big Ten in the final two weeks of the
season. Minnesota saved the toughest for last.

Jerry Kill and the Gophers managed just seven points last
Saturday against Wisconsin, and that touchdown came via a defensive score. Now
the challenge gets even stiffer this weekend when Minnesota faces a Michigan
State defense that allows just 12.5 points per game, the fewest in the
conference.

“They don’t miss a lot of tackles. You talk about a good
tackling team, they’re very good,” Kill said Tuesday. “That’s what makes them
special. They’re good at what they do.”

The Spartans have been stingy against both the pass and the
run, leading the Big Ten in both defensive categories. Opponents have gained an
average of just 59.4 yards per game on the ground and 177.3 yards through the
air. Michigan State is third in the conference in interceptions with 14 — four
each by junior safety Kurtis Drummond and senior cornerback Darqueze Dennard.

Minnesota hasn’t yet faced a secondary quite like Michigan
State’s, which has what Kill calls two “lockdown corners.”

“That’s what makes them good. They’ve got lengthy, long
corners that can flat play,” Kill said. “Probably both of them will be
high-round draft choices when it’s time for their time.”

Michigan State has just one loss this season, a
nonconference defeat at the hands of then-No. 22 Notre Dame earlier in the
year. Even that loss was a low-scoring affair as the Irish won 17-13. Since
then, the Spartans’ defense has really put the clamp down on Big Ten opponents.
Michigan State has held five of its last six opponents to six points or less,
including a 30-6 win last weekend over Northwestern.

Minnesota knows its offense — which struggled against
Wisconsin — will have to take advantage of whatever narrow opening the
Spartans’ defense gives it on Saturday.

“Those guys are really physical. They’re not afraid to press
you. It’s going to be about getting off the press and getting open,” Gophers
quarterback Philip Nelson said of Michigan State’s cornerbacks. “We’ve got to
out-physical them. That’s something we obviously have to work on again this
week.”

The Gophers played against Wisconsin without top wide receiver
Derrick Engel, who was out with a knee injury. In his absence, Nelson had
several young targets at wide receiver in freshmen Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn
Jones.

Those youngsters will get arguably their toughest test at
wide receiver this weekend when they go up against Michigan State’s physical
cornerbacks.

“I certainly do trust all of them,” Nelson said of his wide
receivers. “Our coaches trust them enough to play a lot of different receivers
out there. Whoever it may be, they’re going to get a chance to get the ball. …
From the Wisconsin week, they learned that those Big Ten cornerbacks, they just
keep getting more and more physical.”

Kill will stay in coaches box: Since Kill has taken time
away from his head coaching duties to focus on his health, he has watched each
Gophers game from the coaches box. For a while, it was out of superstition as
Minnesota won the first four games with Kill up in the box.

But even after Saturday’s 20-7 loss to the Badgers, Kill
said he still won’t return to the sideline against Michigan State.

“Right now, I think that’s the best thing to do for our
football team,” Kill said. “The communication and everything is very good right
now. Managing the game, all that stuff has been very good. We’ll continue to do
that at this point.”

With Kill remaining up in the press box, that means acting
head coach/defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys will be the on the sideline this
Saturday for the sixth consecutive game.

Thanksgiving as a team: Before the Gophers head to East
Lansing, Mich., for Saturday’s game against the Spartans, they’ll celebrate
Thanksgiving together on campus Thursday morning. Kill said many of the players
who have family in the Twin Cities area will also host teammates at their
families’ homes.

“We’re all thankful, I can tell you that,” Kill said. “We’re
all blessed to be playing the great game of football. … We have Thanksgiving
dinner — or brunch, whatever — we have it together. The families come in, the
coaches’ families and so forth. It’s a good deal. It’s hard for those kids that
are away, but they seem to handle it very good because of the nucleus of
players we have from the state of Minnesota.”

The menu Thursday will include plenty of traditional
northern dishes with some southern touches, said Dan O’Brien, the Gophers’
associate athletic director.

“We’re very cultured,” Kill joked. “It’s usually pretty
good. You look at me and you look at everybody else, we haven’t missed any
meals. I don’t think it matters what they put out there. I think we’ll eat it.”

Hathorne leads charity dance marathon: Gophers kicker Chris
Hawthorne admits he doesn’t have many dance moves, but that isn’t preventing
him from helping organize a dance-related fundraiser.

The Ultimate Dance Marathon is a project started by
Hawthorne to help raise money and awareness for pediatric health. The money
raised from the event — a 12-hour dance marathon from Feb. 22-23 at Mariucci
Arena — will go to the Amplatz Children’s Hospital.

“It’s been a two-year effort. It’s been a lot of work,
countless hours,” Hawthorne said of the organization process. “It’s finally
coming to fruition. We’re at $14,000 now. We still have a long way to go to
reach the $75,000 I shot for from the beginning. Hopefully the fundraising
steps up here down the home stretch.”

Rules of the dance marathon include no sitting and no
sleeping. The hope is to use money raised as a general fund to give to Amplatz.
Hawthorne said he’s talked with the hospital about the possibility of building
an indoor playground, a $500,000 project.

While the Ultimate Dance Marathon likely won’t raise enough
for that, Hawthorne hopes the amount they do donate can go as a down payment
for that playground. He’ll even do his part in February by dancing during the
12-hour marathon.

“I don’t have any moves,” Hawthorne said. “I need to invest
some time into learning some.”

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