At 5-1, Gophers on brink of bowl game eligibility

by Brian Stensaas

Minnesota football coach Glen Mason arrived at Bierman athletic complex at approximately 4:15 a.m. Monday and almost immediately made the decision to hold the early practice indoors.

The mercury had dipped to below freezing as his players began preparing for Thursday’s game against Northwestern.

However, a win against the Wildcats would most likely send the Gophers packing for a holiday postseason game in a much warmer climate.

With a record-setting seven postseason bowl games tied-in to the conference this winter, the 5-1 Gophers could become bowl eligible with a Thursday win.

Only the Big Ten’s seventh bowl tie-in game, Detroit’s Motor City Bowl, lies in the northern half of the continent.

But rather than booking potential flights to Orlando, El Paso or Pasadena, Mason is concentrating on exorcizing some demons of years past.

“We have too many other things to worry about,” Mason said when asked about postseason possibility. “You don’t get paid to think about things like that.”

The Gophers have lost in two consecutive years to Northwestern. Last season, Minnesota went to Evanston on a two-game losing streak only to make it three.

Two years ago, the Gophers were stunned on a last second Hail Mary pass, giving the Wildcats a 41-35 victory at the Metrodome.

“The first thing we’re all thinking about is getting back at Northwestern,” senior offensive tackle Jeremiah Carter said. “Anything else after that is just icing on the cake. Beating Northwestern is going to be the best satisfaction.”

Following Minnesota’s 31-10 win over Illinois last Thursday, quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq was focusing on the Wildcats but admitted to having postseason thoughts in the back of his mind.

Should Minnesota nab a win again this week, the whole team can begin pondering the postseason. Only this year, the focus will be on staying hot after clinching a possible berth.

In 1999 and 2000, the Gophers went to back-to-back bowls for the first time since the mid-80s. However, Minnesota started out 4-0 in 1999 before losing three of the next four games. The Gophers went on to lose in the Sun Bowl to Oregon.

The team also faltered down the stretch in 2000, losing three of its last four games after defeating then-No. 6 Ohio State in Columbus.

“We’re looking forward to going to a bowl game, but our whole objective is to go to the best bowl game,” junior free safety Eli Ward said, who tallied a then-career high eight tackles in the 2000 Bowl. “We just need to continue to work and do the things that have made us successful so far this season.”

With six remaining games on the schedule – three at home and three on the road – it is likely the Gophers will get their important sixth win and beyond. Just where the team is placed, however, is a riddle that won’t be solved anytime soon.

A more clear answer is which teams are in the running for watching postseason games on the television. The Wildcats and defending Big Ten champion Illinois are already off to 0-2 conference starts.

Michigan, Northwestern and Purdue shared the conference title with two losses apiece in 2000.

The Boilermakers went to the “Granddaddy of Them All,” making them the first Big Ten team to play in the Rose Bowl with two losses since Michigan in 1990.

Brian Stensaas covers football and welcomes comments at [email protected]