U Loyalists May Find Heart in Ames
I ended a two-game road winning streak with the Gophers on Saturday night in Iowa City. Earlier this season I was in Corvallis watching Minnesota beat up on Oregon State, 48-14, and two years ago I visited West Lafayette where the Gophers embarrassed Purdue in a 41-13 win.
No such fun Saturday night. Minnesota played hard but hardly entertained in a blah 17-10 loss to the Hawkeyes. The Gophers lost the game in the first half, failing twice to score near the Iowa goal line. On one miscue quarterback Demry Croft needed to target King Kong instead of 6-10 tight end Nate Wozniak who was wide open in the end zone. Croft threw high, and was also off target later in the half when he forced a pass at the goal line that was intercepted.
Offensively the Hawkeyes weren’t much better than the Gophers, and at times worse. The Hawkeyes were sputtering like a cold engine early in the third quarter when a chorus of boos came down from the stands. The vocal “kick in the pants” seemed to help because three successful plays followed including a touchdown pass that increased Iowa’s 7-0 halftime lead to 14-0 early in the third quarter.
Despite a few boo-birds, it was a subdued Hawkeye gathering in historic Kinnick Stadium on Saturday night. I kept looking for black and gold dressed crazies, hoping to even spot an occasional flask that warmed the body and loosened the tongue on the chilly evening. Instead, I settled for eavesdropping on a few remarks from the Iowa faithful.
Behind our seats a young man asked companions to help identify P.J. Fleck so he could make fun of the energetic Gophers coach. After the game an Iowa fan bragged how the Hawkeyes had “sunk” the Minnesota boat. Hope she didn’t need a lot of time to come up with that.
The best exchange I heard between fans came when a Hawkeye booster asked a Gopher supporter what Ski-U-Mah means? “It means beat the (blank) out of Iowa,” the Minnesota fan answered.
A group of Hawkeye boosters were talking about having a better team next season. If any Minnesota fans were in listening range, they knew that’s preaching to the choir. The Hawkeyes have disappointed their fans with big game losses to Penn State and Michigan State, along with a clunker overtime defeat in Evanston against Northwestern.
The Iowa crowd was listless Saturday night as they watched the Hawkeyes improve their overall record to 5-3 and 2-3 in Big Ten games. Likely some of the fan base thinks the program has grown stale under long-time head coach Kirk Ferentz who has been leading the Hawkeyes since 1999. In the previous seven seasons, for example, Iowa has only twice won more than half of its league games. The Hawkeyes aren’t realistic contenders to win the Big Ten’s West Division or earn a trip to a New Year’s bowl game.
Part of the malaise on Saturday was probably the cold weather that contributed to fans leaving the game early, and some seats either going unsold or unused. Even retaining possession of Floyd of Rosedale didn’t seem to be a big deal at Kinnick. Maybe fans are bored with the rivalry after seeing their heroes win 12 of the last 16 games against Minnesota.
The most emotional part of the night was watching the crowd wave during the first half to patients at the Iowa children’s hospital adjacent to the stadium. In the dark of night fans used their lighted cell phones to salute the most important people in Iowa City Saturday evening. To Fleck’s credit, he instructed the Gophers to leave the bench area and go on the field to wave at the kids between the first and second quarters.
There were a surprising number of fans dressed in Gopher clothing at the game. But, holy Hawkeye, they were a quiet group. Decades of losing and disappointments will do that to a fan base.
For the more passionate and loyal Gophers fans, the years of watching teams that seldom can manage to win half of their conference games is beyond disappointment. “The Gophers will never win (championships),” a despair-filled Minnesota fan said Sunday.
Well, no promises from this keyboard, but you won’t read a death notice here. Gophers fans desperate for optimism might look south to a place about 3 hours from Minneapolis. Down in Ames, Iowa this is a strange but glorious fall for the Iowa State Cyclones—the hapless football program that hasn’t won a league championship for over 100 years.
Led by second-year head coach Matt Campbell and a walk-on quarterback, ISU has defeated two top five teams in the last three weeks. The latest bizarre development was beating previously undefeated TCU in Ames on Saturday. Back on October 7, the Cyclones may have even done more impossible work by surprising Oklahoma in Norman—the Sooners being the one team to defeat mighty Ohio State earlier this season.
The Gophers don’t have possession right now of Floyd of Rosedale, the famous bronze hog awarded annually in the Minnesota-Iowa series, but if Iowa State can do big things in college football then indeed “pigs can fly.” Despite what previous dismal decades teach us, the Gophers program may yet get airborne.
Campbell is 37 and he came to Ames from Toledo where he won nine games during three of four-plus seasons. Among his Mid-American Conference rivals was Western Michigan, where the 36-year-old Fleck coached until last January when he took over the Minnesota program. If Campbell can flip the switch in Ames, then someone—maybe Fleck—can wake up the echoes of what once was a nationally revered football program at Minnesota.
Campbell stresses culture, attitude and effort, and he is operating at a place that hardly is rich in tradition and resources including players. Within the state of Iowa he must compete for talent against Iowa and Northern Iowa—and the Hawkeyes have long been the state’s favored football son.
The population of Iowa is about 2.5 million fewer than Minnesota. That should be an edge for the Gophers in sourcing talent and so, too, should Minnesota being the only Division I program in the state. The program has historically been more successful than Iowa State, with Minnesota’s resume including two Rose Bowls and a national championship in the 1960s.
The have-nots of college football have juiced up the scene this fall. Sad programs in the past like Iowa State, Syracuse and Boston College have made headlines. Syracuse stunned defending national champion Clemson earlier this month. Lowly Boston College upset the once mighty Florida State Seminoles last Friday night.
Big wins—even a couple of them in one season are nice,—but programs that turn a corner win year after year. That will be Campbell’s challenge in Ames—if he stays at Iowa State for the long run, turning down programs and places with more resources.
At Minnesota, though, the Gophers and their fan base would be happy to have a startling win or two. With a strong defense, but struggling offense, it’s a leap of faith to expect to see Minnesota shocking Gopher Nation with a Little Brown Jug win in Ann Arbor next Saturday, or a season ending—gasp!—win against the Badgers while burying a 13 game losing streak to Wisconsin.
A victory in either of those games would be baby steps for Fleck’s program. The wins wouldn’t mean the program has arrived but Gopher loyalists know it could be the beginning of better times.
Inspiration today can be found in one of the most unlikely places on the college football map—Ames, Iowa.