Iowa rivalry has added significance this season for unbeaten Gophers
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Floyd has already had a busy week, making his rounds at the Gophers' practice facility.
He sat on the sidelines of the team's practice field Tuesday, waiting for the players to pat him on the back as they walk past. He even watched on as the Gophers took in a post-practice meal.
He's just a pig and not even a real one at that.
But the bronze-clad, deceptively heavy Floyd of Rosedale trophy represents a rivalry now in its 12th decade of existence and one the Gophers have been underdog victors in for two straight years.
As a result, a strong attachment to the trophy has been growing among the players. The Gophers have no intention to allow Floyd to change his place of residence when they travel one state south to face Iowa on Saturday, once again as the underdog.
"We love Floyd. We love keeping him around. We're hoping it stays that way," offensive lineman Caleb Bak said Tuesday.
The stakes surrounding the 106th meeting of the two teams are different than they have been in the recent history.
For the last two years, the Gophers' surprising victories over Iowa were rare highlights in seasons wrought with very little upside.
Former coach Tim Brewster never won any of the team's four key rivalry games (Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin and Penn State) in his three-and-half year stint with the program. After Brewster was fired midseason in 2010, the Gophers pulled off a 27-24 season-finale win against the Hawkeyes under interim Jeff Horton to cap off an otherwise dismal year.
Current coach Jerry Kill outdid Brewster in one season by leading the Gophers to a comeback victory over Iowa on a cold October day at TCF Bank Stadium in 2011, but again the win served as nothing more than a ray of pride in another three-win campaign.
But a win for the Gophers at Iowa on Saturday would be more than a pleasant consolation prize.
Coming off a defensively dominated 17-10 defeat of Syracuse, the Gophers enter Big Ten play with a 4-0 record for the first time in four years. Confidence is growing quickly within the program, having not been considered as a real possibility to be one of only three unbeaten teams in the conference at this point in the season.
The Gophers carry an element of unpredictability into the game, with the question looming of whether or not their quick start is proof the team can far surpass expectations this season or was it a mere fluke?
While the mentality change the team has undergone in the last year is easy to see, the players are aware their success in the last four weeks will lose significance if it can't be built upon in the next nine games.
"There's pride in (being 4-0), but there is still a whole lot more to be done," junior cornerback Jeremy Baltazar said. "To me personally, we still haven't proved much to anybody out there."
Beating on Iowa on the road could further legitimize their success this season and serve as a significant milestone for the turnaround job Kill is trying to push forward.
In a reversal of roles, Iowa is a team grasping for stability. A late fourth quarter collapse and a last-second field goal by the visiting Central Michigan Chippewas on Saturday dropped the Hawkeyes to their second loss, both of which have come on their home turf at Kinnick Stadium.
Regardless, Iowa still holds the advantage. The Gophers have not won at Kinnick since 1999. For the 'U' to end that 13-year drought it will take stopping Iowa's downhill running game. Despite the loss, running back Mark Weisman thrashed Central Michigan for 217 yards and three touchdowns.
Kill knows his team has issues to address if they plan to bring Floyd back to the Twin Cities with them. Several botched scoring chances by the offense against Syracuse, primarily in the first half when a holding penalty on left guard Jon Christenson erased a touchdown, could have potentially cost the Gophers the game, but they were salvaged by their defense.
"We're not going to be able to miss two field goals. We're not going to be able to have a touchdown pass called back or we're not going to win," Kill said. "We have no room for error. Our kids understand that."
Kill has made sure his players, especially the ones new to the program, understand the importance of the rivalry. He brought in past letter winners and famous alums to remind the players what they are playing for.
"Certainly where we're at at Minnesota we have to go back to our history, which is very rich here at the University of Minnesota, and we have to learn from our history to build our program and move it forward," Kill said.
"It's important, and it's important to our fans. It's been important for a long time. It's important for our state as well as it is for Iowa."
• MarQueis Gray is not expected to be healthy to play against Iowa, Kill reiterated Tuesday. A severely sprained left ankle and knee has kept Gray from practicing for a week. The senior quarterback is still sporting a limp as the soreness remains prevalent, but Kill said he is making progress towards a possible return against Northwestern on Oct. 13 after the Gophers' bye week.
• Starting left guard Tommy Olson was wearing boot over his injured ankle at practice Tuesday. He tweaked his ankle against Syracuse and was eventually replaced by redshirt freshman Jon Christenson. The Gophers are currently preparing as if Olson will not be ready to play Saturday, meaning Christenson will likely get his first career start.