Trophy hunting: Gophers have eyes on a prize ... any prize
O.J. Smith spent his first three seasons at Alabama before transferring to Minnesota. At his new school he has learned new traditions, such as Floyd of Rosedale.
Smith, a senior defensive tackle from Bossier City, La., did a double take when he discovered the Gophers-Iowa rivalry trophy was a bronze hog.
I was like, What?andthinsp; he said, laughing.
On Saturday afternoon at TCF Bank Stadium, that peculiar piece of porcine will be on the line for the 83rd time when Smith and his Gophers teammates face Iowa, which has a three-year hold on Floyd. Though the Gophers (3-1, 0-1 Big Ten) largely stayed on script by emphasizing that the game against the Hawkeyes (3-1, 0-1) is important because its the next one on the schedule, they couldnt hide the added motivation that a rivalry produces.
You can feel it in the air, redshirt freshman guard Blaise Andries said. Games against Iowa and Wisconsin, there might be a little extra oomph behind it.
Gophers coach P.J. Fleck agrees, and he embraces the chance for his team to play for Floyd of Rosedale and Paul Bunyans Axe, which goes to the Minnesota-Wisconsin winner.
Its one of the best rivalries in college football. Its one of the most historic, Fleck said. We talk about it. Were very honest with our players. This is a trophy game. Its a really big game for a lot of people. Thats why you come to the University of Minnesota, thats why you play in the Big Ten.
Fleck is charged with reversing a long trend in the trophy games against the border rivals. Over the past 15 years, the Gophers are a combined 5-25 against Iowa (4-11) and Wisconsin (1-14). They have lost seven in a row in those rivalries, with their last victory being a 51-14 trouncing of Iowa in 2014.
Its not just the losses that sting for Gophers and their fans, its seeing opposing teams and their fans frolic at Minnesotas expense. In 2002, Iowa won 45-21 in the Metrodome to clinch a share of the Big Ten title, and about 2,000 Hawkeyes fans stormed the field and tore down a goalpost. Go back to 1990 in the Dome, and Gophers quarterback Marquel Fleetwood, with his team backed up to the shadow of its end zone, had to ask for a timeout because Hawkeyes fans were making such a racket during a tight game that Minnesota won.
The current Hawkeyes take the rivalry seriously, too.
We just talk about what it takes to keep those trophies in our building, what it takes to get the trophy we dont have back into our building, said Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley, whose team fell 28-17 to Wisconsin Sept. 22 in the battle for the Heartland Trophy. We do a good job of making it known the added intensity that comes along with this game.
Gophers linebacker Thomas Barber saw an added emphasis from Fleck this week.
Its something he talks about, the junior said of the Gophers breaking through against the border rivals. He doesnt know what teams going to do it, but its eventually going to come to an end. I want to be part of the team that does that.
Both Iowa and Wisconsin turned their football fortunes around with the coaching hires of Hayden Fry and Barry Alvarez, respectively, and their influence is still felt.
Fry led the Hawkeyes to three Rose Bowls from 1981 to 90 before Kirk Ferentz took over in 1999. Ferentz, the longest-tenured active coach in major college football, has led Iowa to a pair of Orange Bowls and one Rose Bowl.
Alvarez guided the Badgers to three Rose Bowls as coach, then focused on athletic director duties, during which Wisconsin has played in three more Rose Bowls, a Cotton Bowl and an Orange Bowl.
Fleck would love to have that continuity in his program.
The reason why theyre so successful is they have had the same system, the same coaches, the same people that they can recruit to and develop in the same strength staff, he said.
A first step toward that sustained success would be winning a trophy game.
I always wanted to be in a trophy game after watching them on TV, Smith said. Now, Im actually going to be in one. I cant wait until Saturday.