Football wins have team in wonderland

Jeff Sherry

All it takes is a quick look at the college football standings to see that something strange is going on: Minnesota is 3-0.
But that’s not the only unusual occurrence on campus this fall. Gophers receiver Ryan Thelwell has also witnessed some rather uncharacteristic behavior from other students.
“People are coming up and saying, `Oh, I loved watching the game Saturday,” Thelwell said. “They’re coming up to me and saying, `You guys can do it! Beat Purdue!’ We never got that last year. Now that we’re 3-0 it kind of seems different around here.”
If Minnesota can keep the wins coming, things could really get different. The Gophers open their Big Ten schedule against a very beatable Purdue team Saturday, making another early victory seem well within reach.
So after setting standards for futility for most of the decade, the Gophers are finally staring at a multitude of opportunity. A 4-0 start could generate serious local fan support, put the team within reach of a bowl game, and help the program turn the proverbial corner.
It could also bring a breath of life to a University that’s forgotten how much fun it can be to rally behind its football team.
“It’s fun for everybody — students, alumni, coaches, players — there’s no doubt about it,” Coach Jim Wacker said. “Football is just that way. When your football team gets on a roll it can have a dramatic impact as far as helping people feel good about themselves, the University and everything else. It’s crazy.
“It’s a phenomenon that’s hard to explain. There’s a pride factor that comes out, and it gives everybody a boost.”
But while there have been signs of increased campus support, many people are a bit tentative to jump on the team’s bandwagon. After all, last year’s team started 3-1 before losing its final seven games.
Perhaps the easiest way to measure the public’s sentiment for a team is by looking in the stands. With Minnesota’s next home game still two weeks away, the fans are remaining cautious with their money.
Dan Tervo, a supervisor at the Gophers athletics ticket office, said Thursday that about 36,000 tickets have been sold for the Gophers’ Oct. 19 Homecoming game against Michigan State. Ticket sales have been steady, he said, but not spectacular.
“I think there’s a lot of people waiting to see how they do against Purdue,” Tervo said. “The (Michigan State) game is still two weeks away, and I think people are watching the schedule closely. I would expect we’ll see a big push in sales if they win this weekend.”
The Gophers are well aware of the possibilities ahead of them. Six wins would probably get them into a bowl game, and those wins will become tougher to get as the schedule continues to grow more difficult.
There’s a different kind of urgency facing Minnesota now. Rather than needing victories to avoid disaster, the team needs victories to keep its goals alive.
“The more you win, the more important every game becomes,” Wacker said. “This weekend is critical. You want to win your first Big Ten game. But you’ve got to keep things in perspective, and you never want to make it bigger than it is.”
The players seem to understand. And they also seem ready.
“We’ve got a chance to make history here,” receiver Tutu Atwell said. “It will be a dream come true to go out and get this 4-0 win, and we’re going to accomplish it.”