MINNEAPOLIS — The recent bye week was both a blessing and a curse for the Gophers football team.
On one side of the coin is the fact that Minnesota had an extra week for its disappointing loss at Illinois to linger. The Gophers didn’t have the opportunity to get right back out on the field the following Saturday to put that loss behind them.
On the plus side, the extra break allowed Minnesota to get healthy. After eight games of a college football season, there’s bound to be plenty of bumps and bruises. Even an extra week, though, couldn’t cure everything that ails the Gophers. Wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky, for one, will still be sidelined this Saturday against Iowa.
Additionally, Minnesota had an extra week to gameplan against one of its biggest rivals — and to prepare for a tough four games that also includes games against Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin.
"I think the situation is it gives you an opportunity, one, to go back and whether you win or lose, you go back and see what you could have done better," said Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill. "We’re not healthy. For the next four games we play, we need all the juice we can get. I thought we were fatigued a little bit. . . . An off week kind of helps get everybody re-energized, so to speak. As I told them, right now you’re playing for something in November. That hasn’t always been the case."
The loss to Illinois was particularly tough for a few reasons. Minnesota was favored to win that game on the road but was slow out of the gates and wound up stumbling late as the Illini stole a 28-24 victory from the Gophers. It was Minnesota’s first Big Ten loss of the year as Kill’s team went from leading the Big Ten West to now entering Saturday’s game as one of four one-loss teams in the division.
The Gophers are still in the driver’s seat, though, as they face all three of those one-loss teams — Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin — before the regular season is over with. But Minnesota has yet to face a challenge like this month’s slate of games.
"I don’t really think about it, because we got the schedule a long time ago," Kill said. "We knew, we talked to our kids about it. And that’s the way it is, so all we do is concentrate."
In Minnesota’s mind, there would be no better way to bounce back from the loss at Illinois two Saturdays ago than to come out this weekend and beat the Hawkeyes. Before beating Michigan earlier this season to win the Little Brown Jug, Minnesota’s win against Iowa in Kill’s first season in 2011 was arguably his biggest victory against a rival. The Hawkeyes have won the last two meetings, however, and have retained possession of Floyd of Rosedale, the heavy bronze pig given to the winner of the border battle.
Gophers quarterback Mitch Leidner ultimately chose to stay with his hometown school, but there was a possibility during his recruiting that Iowa might have been the choice if he didn’t end up in Minnesota. A redshirt sophomore, Leidner has yet to get his hands on Floyd of Rosedale during his time as a Gopher. He attended Minnesota’s game in 2011 against the Hawkeyes, the last time the Gophers won this rivalry.
After going through his own struggles in the loss to Illinois, perhaps no other player on the roster is looking forward to the opportunity to bounce back more than Leidner.
"It’s just a thing of coming to practice every day and showing up and working hard. That’s what we’ve been doing ever since that loss against Illinois happened," Leidner said. "We move forward from it. I’m excited at where this month’s going to lead us to."
Leidner’s attitude epitomizes the Gophers’ philosophy as the calendar has turned to November. Yes, he and the Gophers stubbed their collective toe against Illinois. But they also have a chance to right the ship this Saturday and possibly make some noise in the Big Ten during this final four-week stretch.
"Mitch doesn’t let a whole lot phase him at the end of the day. He’s learning that each week and getting better at that," said Minnesota offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover. "Having the week off to kind of put Illinois in our rearview mirror and set our sights for Iowa, I loved his demeanor and how he went about things on Sunday, and expect more of the same this week and going into the game."
Leidner didn’t play in last year’s game against Iowa, a 23-7 loss at TCF Bank Stadium. Philip Nelson was in at quarterback for Minnesota in that game, which wasn’t quite as close as the score indicated.
Now as the Gophers’ starting quarterback, Leidner will have his opportunity to help Minnesota reclaim the pig and add it to the trophy case.
"I’m looking forward to it a ton," Leidner said. "It was one of the best feelings in the world to be able to run over their and hoist that Jug up. We can only hope that we’ve worked hard enough and the chips will fall our way this weekend."