With Sugar Bowl gone, Michigan focuses on Big Ten

Updated: October 9, 2003, 7:30 PM ET

MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota tight end Ben Utecht was asked about using the oldest rivalry trophy in college football -- the "LittleBrown Jug" -- as motivation for Friday night's game against rival Michigan.

"I've never seen it," Utecht responded, drawing laughter.

None of the current Gophers have seen it. The jug hasn't been in Minnesota's display case since 1986.

That's 14 straight times Michigan has beaten the Gophers.

"I've seen it in pictures," Utecht said. "I've heard about it. I've heard they keep it locked up, keep it real safe."

With Michigan's traditionally strong program, the jug has indeed been safely locked away in Ann Arbor. But when the 20th-ranked Wolverines travel to the Metrodome for the 100th anniversary of this series, the 17th-ranked Gophers have one of their best chances in years to end the streak.

"This is a big game in the history of this team," Utecht said. "I'm really excited to see what we can do."

Minnesota (6-0, 2-0 Big Ten) has a lot more riding on this game than the jug and its undefeated record. The Gophers have taken a lot of criticism for their soft non-conference schedule, which included Tulsa, Troy State, Ohio and Louisiana-Lafayette.

Many still doubt them even after conference wins on the road against Penn State and Northwestern.

Even though Michigan (4-2, 1-1) has had its national championship hopes ruined by losses to Oregon and Iowa, a Gophers victory would convince many skeptics and legitimize their national ranking.

"We're playing the Yankees," Minnesota coach Glen Mason declared earlier this week.

"You look at the their press guide -- it's history, after history, after history."

This game was moved to Friday night to avoid a potential conflict with a Minnesota Twins' playoff game. (The Twins were eliminated Sunday by the Yankees.)

Minnesota has its sights set on its first Big Ten title since 1967, and the Wolverines now have the same goal.

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

Said coach Lloyd Carr: "Those guys have been through the ups and downs and are not going to let anybody give in. You can't give in and feel sorry for yourself."

The Wolverines still look strong offensively with tailback Chris Perry, the nation's fifth-leading rusher. Most of the questions posed to Mason and his players this week have been about how to slow Perry, who averages 129 yards per game.

"I think it's a big mistake to say, 'Hey we've got to shut down Chris Perry.' Michigan's got a lot of weapons," Mason said.

But Minnesota's coach has some weapons of his own. Quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq leads the Big Ten in passing efficiency while running back Marion Barber III leads the conference with 13 rushing touchdowns. And receiver Jared Ellerson was named the Big Ten's co-Offensive Player of the Week after catching four balls for 189 yards and two TDs against Northwestern.

Mason refuses to acknowledge that Friday's game is one Minnesota's most important in recent memory, but the players do.

"This is what you live for, you live to play against teams like Michigan," Abdul-Khaliq said. "It's going to be even bigger to show that Minnesota's for real."

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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