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 MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -Minnesota used a perceived slight by its previous two opponents as a source of motivation and pulled out consecutive homecoming-spoiling victories over Illinois and Purdue.
This time, the 20th-ranked Gophers are back home - and on the other side of it.
They're now the guys trying to beat a team all the fans and alumni expect them to. Minnesota hosts Northwestern on Saturday to highlight the final homecoming weekend in 27 seasons at the Metrodome before the move back to a new on-campus stadium next fall.
``We've been hunting the bear, and we've somewhat now become the bear and our football team needs to understand that,'' coach Tim Brewster said. ``That's a different kind of mind-set. We're kind of the hunted at this point. I like that. That means progress. But without question, we understand exactly where we're at. We know Northwestern is going to come after us.''
f a season the Big Ten has had for a while, and the Gophers (7-1, 3-1) are at the top of the list after going 1-11 last year in Brewster's debut.
They might be favored to win all of their remaining games (Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, with only the Badgers on the road), which would reverse their record from 2007. In that case, they could find themselves - gasp! - making plans for Pasadena.
Before the Rose Bowl even becomes a possibility, though, the focus is on Northwestern (6-2, 2-2).
``Teams definitely underestimated us. That all comes with the territory. We understand that. We're never going to underestimate another team,'' defensive tackle Garrett Brown said. ``We're always going to stay humble and keep working.''
The Gophers are determined to avoid overconfidence, particularly against a Wildcats team stinging from a surprising loss to struggling Indiana in which standout running back Tyrell Sutton suffered a season-ending wrist injury and quarterback C.J. Bacher hurt his hamstring enough to likely keep him out of action this week.
``I don't think we have to worry about that on this squad,'' Gophers quarterback Adam Weber said. ``You need that little bit of edge to you, especially heading into some of our biggest games of the season. But we know where we've come from. We know that at the beginning of the year, everyone thought, 'Minnesota Gophers: easy team on the schedule.'''
the Gophers have been mediocre at best for so long - and were so bad last season - that it would probably take several years of this for the program to truly be in danger of becoming cocky.
``We view ourselves as the underdog going into every game on the schedule,'' Weber insisted. ``We did against Purdue. We're going to in this game.''
Northwestern, of course, has traditionally been the team opponents scramble to schedule as their homecoming opponent, but coach Pat Fitzgerald has helped develop the Wildcats into a bowl-caliber squad. They went 6-6 last season and won their first five this fall before dropping two of the last three, and with powers like Michigan and Wisconsin playing well below their standard, Northwestern is in prime position to land one of the conference's better postseason spots.
``I love the attitude and resolve within our program,'' Fitzgerald said. ``They're ready to go. This is a great opportunity for us. We're invited again for homecoming, and we're excited for the challenge.''
This matchup didn't mean much last season, but it was certainly exciting: a 49-48 win by the Wildcats in double overtime. Though Northwestern is missing part of its arsenal, this is still an offense with the potential to put up plenty of points. Both the Wildcats and Gophers use the spread scheme, and Minnesota offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar held the same position at Northwestern from 2002-05.
Defense, though, is where both of these teams have made the most improvement. Following the lead of Fitzgerald, a ferocious middle linebacker who helped lead the Wildcats to back-to-back Big Ten titles in 1995 and 1996, Northwestern is allowing only 18.3 points per game. Under new defensive coordinator Ted Roof, Minnesota leads the nation in turnover margin and has held a pair of conference foes - Indiana and Purdue - to seven points or less.
The Gophers are enjoying their revival, though they realize they must remain restrained.
``It's been a lot of fun this year showing teams that we're a much-improved team and we're not this team that's running around like a chicken with its head cut off,'' Weber said.
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