U football tries to avoid fall

by Jeff Sherry

Last year the Gophers ended their football season at Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium, with a 45-3 defeat and an emotional exit from the field. Weeks of frustration welled up on the way to the locker room, and players wept openly as they walked.
It was a team that had been thoroughly beaten, even long before it stepped on the field.
“The coaches tried hard to keep morale up, and we practiced as hard as we normally did,” linebacker Parc Williams said. “But emotionally and mentally we weren’t there. Our heart wasn’t into it.”
Unfortunately for the Gophers, this season is starting to look quite similar to last season, and their remaining schedule includes the same teams it did a year ago. Just like last year, Minnesota is 3-3 after six games. And just like last year, the team faces consecutive showdowns with national powers Michigan and Ohio State.
So Minnesota will be in a familiar position Saturday night when it hosts the Wolverines in the Metrodome. Playing in a game not many people think they can win, the Gophers will try to avoid the collapse that hurt them last year — both on the field and in their heads.
“Last year we lost some tough ballgames, and then we played some tough teams in Michigan and Ohio State, and I think we lost our confidence,” Williams said. “We were losing, things with Coach [Jim] Wacker were surfacing — if he was going to lose his job and things like that — and it had a toll on the team.
“I think we let up. We didn’t play good on either side of the ball. I think the bottom kind of fell out.”
But the Gophers truly seem to believe that this year will be different. The players say they learned from what happened last season, and they won’t let it happen again. Seniors Jerome Davis and Ben Langford often stress the importance of unity to their teammates.
Their attitudes thus far have remained mostly positive. Despite losing their last three games, the Gophers were still enthusiastic in practice Wednesday. They’re focusing on not letting the losses get them too far down.
“We find ourselves in the same situation that we were last year, but we have different hopes,” cornerback Rodney Heath said. “Defensively, we have different coordinators who keep our minds right and let us know what’s important. A game is a game. We’re not going to look at losing as dying or anything that tragic.”
As anyone familiar with Minnesota football knows, however, losing could bring dire consequences. If the Gophers do not win at least two more games, the now-famous clause in Wacker’s contract will take effect, and he’ll have to resign.
The players admit Wacker’s contract status was a distraction last year. This year, however, they’re determined to block it out.
“We’re still not going into the season thinking we have to win two more games in order for him to keep his job,” Heath said. “That wouldn’t be right for us individually or as a team, because we also have to win for ourselves.”
There have been times, however, when some of the negatives have gotten to the team. After Minnesota’s 27-9 loss to Michigan State last weekend, a few players could be heard going at each other through the locker room doors.
Wacker said Tuesday that the team dealt with the problem, and he doesn’t expect similar behavior in the future.
“The kids are fine,” Wacker said. “It wasn’t offense yelling at defense or anything like that. It’s just frustration.
“The other side of the coin is, I’m glad they’re mad and angry and frustrated — they better take it hard. But I think you can be a man about it and go into a corner and cry or slam your fist into a wall or whatever. You play the game with your pads and helmet, not with your mouth.”
The Gophers close out the season by traveling to Wisconsin, then hosting Illinois and Iowa. It’s by no means an easy schedule, but with all that rides on the remaining five games, the players still believe they won’t repeat last year’s demise.
“Even if we get through these next two games and don’t win, we’ve still got three games left that are very winnable,” Williams said. “And three wins will still put us in a bowl game. So there’s no reason to be down or anything. We still have a big part of the season left, and we can still get somewhere and accomplish some things.”