Gophers eager to end regular season on a winning note

By Dave Campbell

Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS — Deon Hightower paused to look at the life-sized mural on a wall inside Minnesota’s football practice facility, admiring the image of a Gophers celebration following the victory over Iowa two years ago.

He wants to be on the next big poster, holding up that bronze pig.

"That’s just a great feeling I would like to repeat, being a senior running over to get it," said Hightower, one of 11 seniors who will suit up on Saturday night against the Hawkeyes for their final Big Ten game. This also happens to be the final time the Gophers will play in the Metrodome, ending a 27-year stay after leaving Memorial Stadium.


This dream season the Gophers were enjoying through September and October ended with a sudden loss to Northwestern on a last-second interception return for a touchdown on Nov. 1. They were beaten soundly by Michigan the following game and then blew a two-touchdown lead last week in a bitter defeat by Wisconsin.

That dropped coach Tim Brewster’s record to 0-5 against the three rivalries Minnesota players and fans annually gear up for the most. All three series — Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin — have been lopsided during the Metrodome era of this once-prolific program.

The Hawkeyes have won six of the last seven, 11 of the last 15, and 18 of the last 26 games against the Gophers. Minnesota’s most memorable win of the last three years, though, was arguably the 34-24 decision over Iowa at the Metrodome in 2006 that completed the regular season with a three-game winning streak, got the Gophers enough victories to qualify for a bowl game, and brought the Floyd of Rosedale trophy back to campus.

"Hopefully we get to run around the dome again and celebrate with the pig," tight end Jack Simmons said.

There’s also this: Beating the Hawkeyes would give them an 8-4 record, including 4-4 in the conference, that’s assumedly good enough to avoid the letdown of traveling to Detroit over Christmas for the Motor City Bowl instead of somewhere sunny. The Insight (Tempe, Ariz.) and Champs Sports (Orlando, Fla.) bowls remain a possibility for the Gophers.

"You win and you do great things and you go into bowl practices, and then I think you have a different attitude," the linebacker Hightower said. "So I think that’s the biggest thing."

The players who grew up in Minnesota are obviously the most serious about the border rivalries with Iowa and Wisconsin, but the out-of-staters quickly pick up on the intensity. Linebacker Steve Davis has held an annual grudge against the Hawkeyes for, he said, ignoring him during the recruiting process after showing initial interest.

"Basically kind of frustrated me," Davis said. "But whenever I play ’em, I just want to try to give ’em that extra oomph, just to let ’em know that they missed out on something."


Wide receiver Eric Decker is expected back in the lineup Saturday after sitting out against Wisconsin and missing most of the Michigan game due to an ankle injury. Linebacker Lee Campbell and safety Kyle Theret also have sprained ankles, and Brewster said their status will be evaluated daily.

"We could have ’em both, or we might not have either one," Brewster said.

So Hightower, Davis, Simmons and the rest of the seniors will take the field on Saturday night with a spring in their steps and a flutter in their stomachs, ready for the proverbial torch pass to the underclassmen who will lead the program into TCF Bank Stadium next fall.

"You learned a lot from last year’s seniors," defensive end Willie VanDeSteeg said. "They were positive all the way through. It didn’t matter we were 1-11. They taught me a lot of good stuff."

He’s eager to sit in the stadium in 2009 and see how his proteges progress.

"These kids are going to be really good when they’re older, and it’s going to be exciting to watch this program grow," VanDeSteeg said.

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