Michigan Jugs Gophers
Saturday, November 8, 2008

As the crowd streamed out of the Metrodome on November 8, fans of the University of Minnesota Golden Gopher football team were grumbling and muttering about the elusive Little Brown Jug and their team’s 29-6 shellacking at the hands of the Michigan Wolverines. They had seen this before. The coach was different and so were the players, but the outcome was the same.

It was 2002, and the coach was Glen Mason, who had taken his team to a 7-1 record before the Gophers dropped their last four games (including a 41-24 drubbing at home by Michigan) and wound up in the Music City Bowl in Nashville, Tenn. Coach Tim Brewster’s 2008 Gophers opened with a 7-1 record and now are in danger of repeating the 2002 season. The Music City Bowl got tired of hosting Big 10 teams, in particular the University of Minnesota (three times), and dropped its affiliation with the conference. To replace the Music City Bowl, the Big 10 signed an agreement with the Insight (formerly Copper) Bowl played annually in Tempe, Ariz. The Insight Bowl now appears to be the best bet for Brewster’s 2008 Gophers. (Worst case scenario the Motor City Bowl in Detroit.)

Something about those blue and yellow winged helmets causes Minnesota football teams to melt when faced with on-charging Wolverines. Former coach and athletic director Fritz Crisler was responsible for those helmets during his tenure at Ann Arbor. But Michigan was not the first. Early on in his coaching career, Crisler insisted on winged helmets both at Princeton and Minnesota. When he abruptly exited Gopher Nation after the 1931 season, his replacement, Bernie Bierman, ripped the wings off Crisler’s helmets. Speculation continues to this day about Crisler had he stayed in Minneapolis. Perhaps it would be the Gophers throwing fear into the hearts of opponents with awesome maroon-and-gold winged helmets.

This season, however, the Wolverines weren’t throwing fear into opponents’ hearts. Under new coach Rich Rodriguez, Michigan entered the Metrodome with a 2-7 record and no chance for a bowl invitation. No matter, Minnesota reverted to traditional form and played dead for the Wolverines before 55,040 spectators. Michigan now is 12-0 inside the Metrodome, a record that will stand forever now that the Gophers are moving to a new outdoor field next season. The last home victory over Michigan occurred in 1977 at old Memorial Stadium.

The tragedy of all this is, of course, the fact that Minnesota and Michigan compete against each other for the most cherished trophy in college sports, the Little Brown Jug (LBJ). What is tragedy for Minnesota is triumph for Michigan. The Wolverines now have a 66-22-2 edge in LBJ games. The LBJ originated in 1903 when Michigan arrived in Minneapolis with a 28-game winning streak. Michigan’s paranoid coach, Fielding Yost, questioned whether the Gophers would provide his Wolverines with fresh water and ordered student manager Tommy Roberts to purchase a jug for the team to bring its own fresh water to the game. Yost’s team took a 6-0 lead, but the Gophers rallied to tie the game with less than two minutes showing on the clock. Gopher fans, enthused by the turn of events, stormed Northrop Field and forced the officials to declare the game a 6-6 tie. To escape the wrath of the fans, Yost and his Wolverines raced from the field. The water jug was left behind. Yost subsequently asked for the return of the LBJ and was met with arrogance. Minnesota athletic department administrator Dr. Louis Cooke told Yost if Michigan wanted the jug, the Wolverines would have to come up north and win it.

He didn’t know it at the time, but Doc Cooke might have created college football’s equivalent of the Billy Goat Curse. The Wolverines now have won 52 of the last 63 games and 36 of the last 39 meetings with the Gophers. It might be some solace to Brewster, previously unfamiliar with the curse, to know that next year, Minnesota will have Michigan right where it wants, off the schedule (the Gophers and Michigan won’t meet again until 2011).

Cursed or not, the Gophers were able to manage only a single first down in the entire first half. Early on quarterback Adam Weber suffered from a case of the “yips,” throwing wildly and missing open receivers while the Wolverines were methodically putting together drives with good field position and taking a 16-0 lead into the locker room at halftime. Michigan had 11 first downs and only stellar defensive play by Minnesota forced Michigan to settle for three field goals plus a touchdown pass from quarterback Nick Sheridan to wide receiver Greg Mathews. The Gophers kept shooting themselves in the foot with six penalties, the majority of which occurred at key intervals. Michigan played the first half penalty-free.

The wear and tear on the Minnesota defense took its toll in the second half. The Gopher defense was simply spending too much time on the field. The offense did recover, despite the loss of superlative receiver Eric Decker, and set up a pair of field goals by Joel Monroe.

“There’s no way to put a prettier dress on the game,” Brewster told reporters after the game’s conclusion. “We didn’t get anything going today on offense. Michigan was more physical on their front than we were on offense. We didn’t protect our passer. Eric Decker was not near 100 percent going into the game. He didn’t do anything to aggravate his [ankle] injury. We just thought it was better to sit him down.”

The absence of Decker served to only emphasize the thinness of Minnesota’s receiver corps, in particular, and the team in general. Just as Brewster’s predecessor, Mason, learned in 2002, the current coach has to face the fact that over the course of a long season, a strong bench is paramount if a team is to make any noise in the highly-competitive Big 10.

“We finally put four quarters together,” Rodriguez said after the game. “We weren’t perfect, but we were solid. We kept grinding away at Minnesota, mixing up our offensive packages. Holding them to three-and-outs gave us confidence.”

As the game reached its inevitable conclusion and with Michigan leading 22-6, Rodriguez made the decision to go for another touchdown after Morgan Trent intercepted a Weber pass at midfield. As the clock ran down, the Wolverines punished the Gophers with running plays until Mark Moundros found the end zone after a three-yard rush and only 34 seconds left on the clock. When asked if he was “pouring it on” Minnesota, Rodriguez replied that he “was only trying to kill the clock. It was nice for Mark to get a touchdown.”

Brewster found no fault with that. “It’s our job to stop them,” he said. “I’ve got no problems with what Rich did.” He did acknowledge that his team “might have been licking their wounds” at that point. Despite the wound-licking against the Wolverines, he vowed that the Gophers would “not wallow in self-pity” next week against Wisconsin next week.

The recently rejuvenated Wisconsin poses a considerable obstacle to the Gophers winning their eighth game, especially since the match will take place in the Belly of the Badgerland Beast, Camp Randall Stadium. “We’re not a one-dimensional team,” the discombobulated Weber said after the Michigan game. However, against the Wolverines, to many observers, Minnesota appeared to be more of a none-dimensional outfit.

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