From the beginning, the Little Brown jug
has meant more to Minnesota than to Michigan. In the 1903 game
between the Gophers and the Wolverines in Minnesota, the game had
to be stopped with two minutes still left on the clock because the
Minnesota fans couldn’t hold back any longer, and they rushed the
field. The reason for their jubilation? The Gophers had pulled into
a tie with the Wolverines. True, one of Fielding Yost’s
“point-a-minute” teams was on the field. But still, the story shows
the difference, traditionally, between Michigan and Minnesota –
they’ve been on two different levels.
The exchange of the trophy started after that 1903 game, and yes
most Michigan fans know Michigan-Minnesota as the Little Brown Jug
game, and it’s neat to be tied to the oldest trophy in college
football. But Michigan leads the series 65-23-3, and the matchup
usually doesn’t register on the Big Game radar of Michigan fans –
they’ve always had bigger things in mind.
Minnesota coach Glen Mason exhibited the importance of the game
for the Gophers earlier this week when he was asked, “Is Friday
night what it’s all about?”
“You know who we’re playing Friday, don’t you?” Mason responded.
“No really, think about it. Who are we playing? We’re playing the
Yankees. That’s exactly right. We’re playing the New York Yankees.
We’re the Twins. And that’s not saying anything bad about the Twins
or the Gophers. We’re playing the Yankees.
“You’re talking about the University of Michigan … I mean you
look through their press guides and it’s history after history
after history after history. Murderer’s row, that’s what we’ve got
here, really. That’s why I’ve got so much respect for them.”
By the sound of it, you’d think Minnesota will be honored just
to be on the same field as Michigan, and that the Gophers will feel
fortunate just to escape in one piece.
That’s a nice try by Mason to paint his team as the hopeless
underdog, but the fact is the tables are turned a little bit this
season. Michigan will enter the Metrodome on Friday as the underdog
as far as the oddsmakers are concerned (the Gophers are narrowly
favored). The Wolverines are also well behind the Gophers in the
Minnesota comes in with a 6-0 record (Michigan hasn’t won six
straight since 1998), while Michigan is 0-2 on the road and 1-2
against nationally-ranked teams. Granted, Minnesota wasn’t tested
in its nonconference schedule and opened the Big Ten with wins
against a struggling Penn State squad and lowly Northwestern. But
both Minnesota and Michigan were picked as preseason threats in the
conference, and so far the Gophers are the ones living up to the
A couple weeks ago, there was still talk among the media that
this would be a huge game for Minnesota, much bigger than for
Michigan. And as a chance to upset the “Yankees,” you’d expect as
much. But the unexpected thing is that Michigan needs this win just
as badly as Minnesota does, probably more.
“It is a Big Ten championship game,” Michigan defensive lineman
Grant Bowman said.
And he’s right – the Wolverines need to win out to have a chance
at the Big Ten title. But this year, the Little Brown Jug holds
more than title hopes. Lose it, and the Wolverines will lose a
little of that Michigan aura that Mason alluded to. Michigan will
have lost to Minnesota for the first time in 15 years and will
likely drop out of the top-25 for the first time in 64 games,
ending the longest streak in the nation.
The implications of the game and the apparent talent of the
unproven Gophers should be good for the series. If the Gophers win,
Minnesota-Michigan still won’t be elevated to the level of Red
Sox-Yankees in the minds of Michigan fans. But at least the Gophers
will have fared better than the Twins.
Courtney Lewis can be reached at