TEMPE, Ariz. -- Minnesota and Iowa State are linked by geography and mediocrity.
Located in bordering states, the Golden Gophers and Cyclones both went 6-6 and had to beat teams from the Dakotas to become bowl-eligible.
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Minnesota and Iowa State will battle in the 21st annual Insight Bowl on Thurs., Dec. 31. NFL Network will bring you the action live starting at 6 p.m. ET. More ...
They also share a desire to close out their seasons on a high note - with a victory in the Insight Bowl on New Year's Eve.
"I've been involved with a lot of bowl games, and I think the bowl game is a reward for your team," Minnesota coach Tim Brewster said. "You can truly only get the reward if you win the football game."
Given their proximity, Minnesota and Iowa State would seem to be natural rivals. Minnesota leads the all-time series 22-2-1, but the schools have met only three times since 1924. Iowa State's only victories came in 1897 and 1898.
The Cyclones probably don't schedule Minnesota very often because they have an emotional annual game against another Big Ten team - Iowa. The Golden Gophers are also fierce rivals with the Hawkeyes, who drubbed Minnesota and Iowa State by a combined 47-3 this season.
"The fact that we don't play each other year-in and year-out, I think, separates it a little bit," Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads said. "But I think there is a natural rivalry with the border."
For the Cyclones, the trip to Arizona has stirred up some warm memories. Iowa State, 2-7 all-time in bowl games, earned its first bowl victory in the 2000 Insight.com Bowl, defeating Pittsburgh 37-29 in Phoenix's Bank One Ballpark.
Rhoads was Pitt's defensive coordinator in that game. Last winter, he took over an Iowa State team that finished the 2008 season with 10 straight losses and quickly turned it into a bowl squad.
Iowa State had a four-game improvement over last season, second-best among BCS conference teams.
"When I arrived and we had our first team meeting on Jan. 12, I witnessed a group of men that were very hungry to be in a position to play in a game like this," Rhoads said. "With that hunger comes a desire to work."
The defense is led by All-Big 12 linebacker Jesse Smith and strong safety David Sims, a junior college transfer who was named the Big 12's defensive newcomer of the year by conference coaches.
One of the Cyclones' bright spots this year came on Oct. 24, when they forced eight turnovers in a 9-7 victory at Nebraska, Iowa State's first win in Lincoln since 1977.
That victory snapped a 15-game skid at Nebraska. In Rhoads' first season, Iowa State also broke a 10-game overall losing streak - with a victory over lower-division North Dakota State - and snapped a 17-game road losing streak and an 11-game Big 12 skid.
They've done it with a relatively anonymous lineup led by quarterback Austen Arnaud, an Ames product whose 28 career TD passes are fourth in school history; Jesse Smith, the league's leading tackler; and Sims.
"We recognize that we don't have any all-stars or heroes, if you will," Rhoads said. "We've got a team that likes playing together, that likes playing the game."
The Insight Bowl has a different feel for the Golden Gophers. They're trying to avoid becoming the first team to lose the game three times.
Minnesota lost the 2006 Insight to Texas Tech 44-41 in overtime. The Golden Gophers blew a 38-7 lead midway through the third quarter, watching in shock as the Red Raiders staged the biggest comeback in major-college bowl history. Coach Glen Mason was fired within days.
Two years later, the Golden Gophers returned to the Insight. This time they spotted Kansas a two-touchdown halftime lead on their way to a 42-21 loss.
"We've been here twice and we've lost twice," linebacker Lee Campbell said. "We're really motivated to get our first win down here at the Insight Bowl."
The Gophers will have to do it without Eric Decker, the leading receiver in school history. Decker is out with a foot injury, but he has been helping out in workouts.
"He's a very settling influence," Brewster said. "He's a veteran guy. He's a heck of a kid. Him being in the room and being around the guys hopefully is a plus."
Decker's absence from the lineup may be one reason for the Golden Gophers' offensive struggles late in the season. They failed to score an offensive touchdown in their last two games - a 16-13 victory over lower-division South Dakota State and a 12-0 loss to Iowa.