Gophers notebook: Beating Michigan would be 'defining moment'

BY foxsports • October 1, 2013

MINNEAPOLIS -- Three days after losing to rival Iowa on homecoming, the Gophers football team was still feeling the sting of the loss. At the same time, Minnesota knows it has a chance to rebound with a signature win this Saturday.

That won't come easy, however, as the Gophers travel to the Big House in Ann Arbor, Mich., to take on the Michigan Wolverines. Michigan is ranked 19th in the country and is off to a 4-0 start despite narrowly slipping by non-conference teams Akron and Connecticut by a combined seven points.

"They're human," said Gophers defensive lineman Ra'Shede Hageman.

Just like Minnesota and Iowa play for the Floyd of Rosedale trophy, the Gophers and Wolverines also play in a trophy game. The Little Brown Jug has been awarded annually to the winner of this rivalry since 1903, but the Gophers haven't won it since 2005.

Winning it Saturday -- and in the Big House, no less -- would certainly help assuage the feeling of Minnesota's loss to Iowa.

"We can't control what happened against Iowa. It's over with," head coach Jerry Kill said Tuesday. "I said at the beginning of the year, as you build a program -- that's what we're doing -- is that you've got to have one of those defining moments. If you're able to (beat Michigan), that would be a defining moment. …

"As a program, we want to keep moving forward. We took a step back on Saturday, but that happens. Now we need to take two steps forward."

Minnesota's players talked all week about the importance of the rivalry with Iowa. Neither state particularly likes each other, as is evident by the Gophers fans' chants of "We hate Iowa!" during games. So to suffer a 23-7 loss to the Hawkeyes in the fashion that the Gophers did was a gut punch.

Kill said he believed his players may have been a bit overly excited for last Saturday's game. The Gophers know that can't happen this weekend with another big rivalry at stake.

"We're disappointed that we weren't able to win the pig back, but we've got a chance to forget about it and do something special this Saturday," said sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson. "That's the way we're looking at it. We learn from our mistakes and look forward and really focus on being able to play a great game on Saturday."

Minnesota hosted the Wolverines last year, meaning many of the Gophers' young players haven't yet played at the Big House. One of the biggest stadiums in college football, Michigan Stadium holds 109,901 fans. 

It's no doubt one of the more intimidating venues in the Big Ten, and one the Gophers have to prepare for this week.

"I was a freshman when I first saw the Big House, so it was definitely shocking to me," said junior safety Cedric Thompson. "As the years go by, you kind of know it's the same game since we were kids, seven years old playing Pop Warner. Just a lot more people and playing on TV. At the end of the day, it's just the same game."

Gophers hope to get running game going: Minnesota established an identity as a running team through the first four games of the year and was one of the best in the Big Ten on the ground.

Things changed against Iowa, though, as the Gophers rushed for a mere 30 yards in the loss.  Now Minnesota faces one of the best rushing defenses in the Big Ten; Michigan has allowed just 79 rushing yards per game and zero rushing touchdowns so far this season.

If the Gophers want to get the running game back on track, it won't be easy. But they insist they're up for the challenge.

"We really are trying to create an identity as a Big Ten team," said Gophers center Jon Christenson. "Obviously we're a running team. We're not like other conferences in the nation. We play power football, and we love that. And that's a lot of fun for an offensive lineman as well. Obviously if throwing the ball works, I'm for whatever wins. But I enjoy running the football as an offensive lineman. That's what you live for; that's what you play for is to be able to pound that ball."

The Gophers worked running back Donnell Kirkwood back into the mix last weekend as Kirkwood got his first carries since injuring his ankle in the season opener. While he carried the ball just three times for six yards, it was important for Kirkwood to be eased back into the offense.

Kill expects Kirkwood to see a few more carries Saturday if all goes well during practice this week.

"It was good to get him back in there and get him sweating a little bit," Kill said of Kirkwood. "We'll see how this week goes."

Wide receivers emerge: There weren't many bright spots for the Gophers in the loss to Iowa, but Kill said Tuesday that the wide receivers impressed him. Derrick Engel emerged as a go-to threat for Nelson, while true freshman Drew Wolitarsky hauled in his first career pass.

"He's a 225-pound wide receiver that's trying to learn what to do," Kill said of Wolitarsky. "Your young players, hopefully they'll continue to do well for us so they can continue to play."

Minnesota threw for 135 yards in the loss, with five different players catching passes from Nelson. While Engel had a team-high five catches for 67 yards and a touchdown, he could have added to those totals if Nelson could have hit him on a few other plays where Engel created separation from the defender.

Still, the progress made by the wide receiving corps was one positive to take from last Saturday's loss.

"I think they did a great job. That's a group that really stepped up in that game," said Nelson, who returned to the starting role after missing the previous game with a hamstring injury. "I was really glad to see that. I think that's something that I knew they could always play like that. It was really relieving to see them play like that because they really stepped up and made my job a little bit easier."

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