Gophers-Hawkeyes play for pig, division race
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) This game against Iowa was building up to be so big for Minnesota.
The Gophers just needed to win at Illinois, a team struggling as much as any in the Big Ten. Then they'd emerge from a week off in sole possession of first place in the West Division, with an unbeaten record in conference play and the benefit of staying home to host the Hawkeyes.
Well, the Gophers fumbled away their control of the race with a 28-24 loss, complicating their pursuit of a surprise spot in the Big Ten championship game with a gauntlet of a November schedule ahead.
''It was a tough pill to swallow, because out of all the teams we didn't expect to lose to those guys,'' wide receiver K.J. Maye said. ''But we know with the way that the season goes, each week we have to be ready. Any team can be beaten on any given day. That shows.''
The Iowa game is always one of the most-anticipated each year for Minnesota, though, with the Floyd of Rosedale Trophy and border-state taunting among the fan bases at stake. Those looming matchups for the Gophers against Ohio State and at Nebraska and Wisconsin, ranked 13th, 15th and 25th, respectively, in the latest Associated Press poll, will wait. This game on Saturday will still play a major role in shaping the four-way chase in the West Division. Recovering from a rough loss at Maryland, Iowa surged back on track with a 48-7 victory over Northwestern last week.
''They're a team that always seems to get better as the year goes,'' Gophers coach Jerry Kill said. ''Everybody starts to question them, and then they roll it off and all of a sudden they got nine, 10 wins.''
Here are some key nuggets to know about the 108th game between Iowa and Minnesota:
The Floyd of Rosedale trophy is one of oldest and most unique in college football, a bronze pig the two teams have been playing for since 1935.
''Floyd is real heavy,'' said Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock, who helped hoist it in victory the last two seasons.
That's no exaggeration. The pig is 15 inches tall, 21 inches long and 98 pounds.
Through a quirk of the expanded conference and shuffled divisions, the Hawkeyes will make their fourth trip to Minnesota in five years.
''At least it's a really nice town to visit,'' Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. ''I think our fans like going up there.''
The Hawkeyes enjoyed a stellar performance by their defense in beating Northwestern, including three sacks by Louis Trinca-Pasat. Rudock continued his season-long improvement, with 239 yards passing on only 19 attempts. But the most encouraging development was the emergence of freshman running back Akrum Wadley, who rushed for 106 yards on 15 carries in his college debut.
He'd been buried at sixth on the depth chart before, but injuries to Jordan Canzeri, LeShun Daniels and Jonathan Parker created an opportunity for time last week shared with senior stalwart Mark Weisman.
CENTER OF ATTENTION
Iowa's offensive line was at its best against Northwestern, and tackles Brandon Scherff and Andrew Donnal are the standouts in the group. Scherff is projected as a first-round NFL draft pick next year. But the play of a fellow senior, center Tommy Gaul, has been a boon for the Hawkeyes, too. Gaul played sparingly until an injury to right guard Jordan Walsh forced center Austin Blythe to move over against Indiana on Oct. 11. Now Blythe is at left guard, and Gaul is the anchor of the line.
''For us to have a good season we have to have some good stories. And Tommy is unfolding as one of the better stories we've had,'' Ferentz said.
Gophers running back David Cobb, the third-leading rusher in the Big Ten, took the loss at Illinois as hard as anyone. It was his fumble returned for the go-ahead touchdown with 6:33 left in the game. The senior is at his best after initial contact, so the Gophers must be careful about trying to get him to run more cautiously.
''So the reinforcement has got to be, `Hey, we love what you do, but let's be mindful of taking care of that football, because if the worst thing we have to do there is punt on 4th and 12, so be it,'' offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. ''Let our defense finish this thing off.''
Wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky is out with a sprained ankle, and Kill said he could miss the rest of the season, testing depth at an already-thin position for the Gophers. Defensive end Alex Keith will also sit out with a knee injury, and right tackle Ben Lauer is iffy, too, with a sprained ankle.