With Sugar Bowl gone, Michigan focuses on Big Ten

Updated: October 8, 2003, 7:56 PM ET

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Michigan Wolverines can scratch New Orleans off their list of travel plans for January.

Pasadena anyone?

"There is still a chance for the Big Ten and hopefully to go to the Rose Bowl," linebacker Carl Diggs said. "We can't let up now."

Yes, the Wolverines (4-2, 1-1 Big Ten) have accepted the fact that their hopes of playing for the national title at the Sugar Bowl are gone. Their loss to Iowa last Saturday took care of that.

Now, they face the tough task of trying to win a share of the Big Ten title to even have a shot at the Rose Bowl.

Even if the 20th-ranked Wolverines beat teams currently undefeated in the conference -- Minnesota, Michigan State, Ohio State and Purdue -- they'll need Wisconsin to lose at least once since the Badgers don't play Michigan this season.

Having to settle for the goal of the conference championship has been tough for the players to take.

"I think we have too much talent to be 4-2 and I think we are angry about it," defensive tackle Grant Bowman said.

"We have a lot of seniors and character guys who want to do something about it," he said. "We have to play like Michigan and it's not just about saying it, we have to step up and do it."

They'll have to do it Friday night against No. 17 Minnesota (6-0, 2-0) in the very unfriendly Metrodome. The game was moved to Friday night to accommodate the Major League Baseball playoffs.

"You have to be an optimist about your situation," Bowman said. "You have one day shorter. You are going to be out on the field faster and the Big Ten race is still out there."

The Gophers also have their eyes on the Big Ten title, something they haven't won since 1967.

"I'm telling you, this team is hungry," Gophers tight end Ben Utecht said.

Minnesota has dropped 14 straight games to the Wolverines, but the Gophers are actually favored against Michigan this year.

The Gophers have responded to criticism of their soft nonconference schedule with wins over Penn State and Northwestern. Although the Nittany Lions and the Wildcats are hardly the pride of the Big Ten, the Gophers showed they can handle the pressure of close games and come from behind on the road.

Beating this week's opponent would help legitimize their record and ranking.

"We know how good we are," said receiver Jared Ellerson, this week's Big Ten co-Offensive Player of the Week. "But beating Michigan will shut a lot of people up."

The Gophers haven't beaten Michigan since 1986, when Minnesota upset the then-No. 2 Wolverines 20-17 in Ann Arbor. Since then, the "LittleBrown Jug" -- the oldest rivalry trophy in college football -- hasn't returned to Minnesota's display case.

But neither team cares as much about the jug as they do about the game's implications.

Michigan, which plummeted from No. 9 in this week's AP poll, needs to win this game not only for its bowl aspirations, but for the team's morale.

"Every game from here on out is a championship game," quarterback John Navarre said. "We can't stub our toe again if we want to win this championship."

Navarre is 0-6 on the road against ranked teams, but the Wolverines offense is still dangerous. Tailback Chris Perry is fifth in the nation in rushing, averaging 129 yards per game. And Braylon Edwards and Jason Avant are among the conference's top receivers.

"If you would've told me we would be 4-2 at this point, I would've told you were crazy," Navarre said. "But nobody is going in the tank. Nobody is giving up. We're staying positive."

Said Bowman: "Internally, I don't think we are down on each other. There is no name calling or no one is blaming on anybody else, which is positive. You hear a lot of guys trying to solve problems and get better."

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Andres Ybarra can be reached at aybarra(at)ap.org.

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index