Two down, one to go for Gophers football

by Michael Dougherty

Meet Illinois State — the last of the three sacrificial lambs on the Minnesota football team’s nonconference schedule.
The Redbirds, of Division I-AA, have jumped out to a 2-0 start after a 55-7 thumping of I-AA foe Southwest Missouri State. Saturday afternoon’s game at the Metrodome will be the first time Illinois State will play a team from the Big Ten since it lost to Illinois in 1944.
Getting Illinois State on the schedule was more difficult than one might think. The Gophers originally had a game at Iowa State scheduled for Sept. 25 as the tail end of a home-and-home series. Minnesota beat the Cyclones 53-29 at the Metrodome in 1997.
However, Iowa State pulled out of the return trip last year, leaving the Gophers scrambling to find an opponent. Because teams usually compile schedules six to seven years in advance, finding an opponent from the 114 Division I teams to fill in with only a year’s notice was exceptionally last minute and ultimately impossible.
Since the NCAA allows teams to dip down into I-AA once every three years for games that count toward a team’s win total, the call to Illinois State was made. However, Minnesota had to dangle some big carrots in front of the Redbirds as an incentive to play.
The biggest carrot was a $250,000 payment Illinois State will receive for coming to Minnesota. Consequently, Redbirds coach Todd Berry was asked if the payday was an important factor in his team’s journey up here.
“Sure it is, you would all know I would be lying if I said it wasn’t,” Berry said. “This game will pay for our whole operating budget.”
Berry said his team played at Kansas last year and was pummeled 63-21, but insisted games like that help his program.
“I don’t even really remember the game that much,” Berry said of the Kansas loss. “But it was a great experience for our players because they recognized the fact that as the season wore on, there would not be anybody else we would play that would be close to Kansas’ talent or maturity level.”
He added that games like this are crucial for recruiting. Playing games against Big Ten teams in Big Ten stadiums gives Berry an edge in convincing prospective athletes to come to Illinois State, he said.
“Even though we’re outmatched athletically and on a maturity level, I think it’s a great experience,” Berry said. “If that means having to lose one game this year to win 10 games next year because you’re recruiting better — to me that’s a good deal.”
Ben on the mend
Junior center Ben Hamilton’s 25-game starting streak is in jeopardy after he underwent arthroscopic knee surgery Monday.
Hamilton said he twisted his right knee in the beginning of Saturday’s 35-0 win against UL-Monroe. He said that he knew something wasn’t right, but he kept playing.
“I was walking around fine today,” Hamilton said after Tuesday’s practice, “but it’s really stiffening up right now.”
Hamilton wore a red jersey in practice, which signals an injured player, and was limping noticeably at the end of practice. Still, he thinks he will be able to play Saturday.
“I’ll be back in a couple of days, but (playing Saturday is) yet to be determined,” Hamilton said. “I’m feeling pretty good about my leg because it’s been feeling good all day, but it’s up to the trainer, because I just had surgery and they want me to take it easy.”
Gophers coach Glen Mason said he viewed the injury quite differently than Hamilton did.
While Mason said he was amazed Hamilton was able to play the rest of the game considering the severity of his injury, he hinted that the likelihood of Hamilton’s streak ending is pretty good. With a win against the Redbirds almost a certainty, and a week off next weekend, Mason said the choice is obvious.
“I’ll list him as out this week,” Mason said. “It’s one of those things that I don’t play games with injuries.”
If Hamilton can’t play, sophomore Akeem Akinwale will start at center.

Michael Dougherty covers football and welcomes comments at [email protected]