Gophers and Illinois find reason to hustle

Jeff Sherry

Prior to Tuesday, the Gophers football team’s next two weekends were being billed as the biggest games of Coach Jim Wacker’s career. Win both games, the coach stays; lose either one, he has to resign.
Of course, much of that drama was taken out of Saturday’s Illinois game when Wacker announced his resignation Tuesday. Add Monday’s firing of Illini coach Lou Tepper with the fact that both teams are guaranteed losing seasons, and suddenly Saturday’s game starts looking like one of the least-meaningful games in recent college football history.
But not to Wacker. Don’t call this game the “Lame Duck Bowl” around him — he’s found plenty of importance in the Gophers’ remaining two games.
“We told the players the most important games in my whole career here are the next two,” Wacker said Tuesday. “Not because we can say, `Now we’re 5-6.’ But because that’s going to set the tone for next year. They better understand that if we’re 5-6, we’re going to be able to recruit better — it’s your job to give the next guys a chance.
“Let’s do what we can do to help turn around Golden Gopher football and do it now. Don’t wait until next year. If they buy into that, and they lay it on the line, it’ll make it a lot easier for everyone in the future.”
It appears the players have bought into it. Even under these adverse conditions, the team appears more motivated now than it did going into its final two games last year. Minnesota lost those games, 48-14 at Illinois and 45-3 at Iowa.
“Last year at this time there was talk of (Wacker) maybe being fired,” Gophers safety Crawford Jordan said. “It put a lot of pressure on us. And that’s the reason why he (resigned) now, so the pressure wouldn’t be on us. There’s no pressure anymore.
“It’ll be the easiest thing we do, to get up for these next two games. They are very, very important for us. Probably the most important games of our careers.”
Linebacker Parc Williams said it will be easier for the Gophers to get pumped up for Saturday’s game than the Illini, partly because of the teams’ different circumstances. Wacker left on his own terms and Tepper publicly spoke out against his athletics director’s decision to fire him.
But Williams also said both teams will be able to play loose Saturday, knowing their coaches’ fates are not on the line.
“You’re a competitive person and you always want to win anyway,” Williams said. “But this gives us the freedom to go out and play. It’ll be a unique situation, definitely. It’ll be kind of weird. We’ll both be two teams just going out and playing football, just having fun and being competitive.”
As far as the game itself goes, it could be a high-scoring affair. Minnesota’s defense is the Big Ten’s worst against the pass, the run, and overall. But the Illini’s traditionally tough defense is ranked just one notch above the Gophers in all those categories this year.
Much of that has to do with the absence of former All-American linebackers Kevin Hardy and Simeon Rice, who are now both in the NFL.
“Those guys allowed them to be pretty creative,” Gophers offensive coordinator Bob DeBesse said. “Any time you lose guys who were the second and third pick in the draft, there’s going to be a little bit of a drop-off when you put the video on. You’re not looking at Hardy and Rice anymore, thank God. They tore us apart last year.”

Note: Next Saturday’s game against Iowa at the Metrodome has been moved back from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. so it can be shown nationally on ESPN2.