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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