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NCAA Football Preview - Minnesota Golden Gophers

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*** NCAA Football Preview - Minnesota Golden Gophers ***

From The Sports Network By Frank Haynes, College Football Senior Editor 2003 SEASON IN REVIEW: Glen Mason continues to get all he can out of his Golden Gophers, and 2003 was no exception as the team went 10-3, finished in a tie for third place in the Big Ten and topped Oregon in a Sun Bowl thriller, 31-30. It was the first time in nearly a century (1905) that a Minnesota team won 10 games. Still, as solid a season as that was, expectations are even higher coming into 2004. Last year, Minnesota scored at least 42 points in each of its first four games and five of its first six overall, and the unit finished among the top seven in the country in scoring offense (38.6 ppg), rushing offense (289.0 ypg) and total offense (494.0 ypg). To say the Gophers were firing on all cylinders at that point is a mild understatement. Not to be forgotten, the defense was brilliant in the first six games, yielding an average of just 13.7 ppg. The Gophers won their first two Big Ten games before watching eventual conference champion Michigan come from behind to claim a 38-35 victory in the third game. Michigan State took a 44-38 verdict the next time out, but Mason's troops rallied to post blowout wins over Illinois and Indiana followed by a hard-fought victory over Wisconsin. A 40-22 loss at Iowa closed the regular season, but the campaign was a success, earning the Gophers their fourth bowl bid since 1999. 2004 ANALYSIS: OFFENSE: With a glaring hole at quarterback, the Gophers will rely heavily on the considerable talents of standout RBs Marion Barber III and Laurence Maroney. The two backs each ran for more than 1,000 yards last season, becoming just the 30th pair of teammates in NCAA history to accomplish that feat. Barber III, who scored a single-season record 17 rushing TDs last year en route to earning All-Big Ten First Team honors, is probably the more complete back, combining excellent speed and power, while Maroney, the 2003 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, is more the elusive type with exceptional quickness. Now for the QB situation, Mason will need to find a replacement for the productive Asad Abdul-Khaliq, who threw for 2,401 yards with 17 TDs and just five INTs last season. Hoping to fill those shoes is sophomore Bryan Cupito, who was the team's third-string signal-caller a year ago. Cupito is a heady player with a strong arm, but he could feel some heat from juco transfer Adam Ernst if he struggles. The UM receiving corps features the return of big- play threat Jared Ellerson. The 6-1 junior set the schoolâ¿¿s sophomore record for receiving yards last year with 909, and will line up opposite senior Paris Hamilton, who sat out last season with an injury but appears ready to go and should give the Gophers even more speed on the outside. Along the offensive line, sophomore Matt Spaeth has all the looks of the next great Gopher tight end, while the line itself feature four returning starters and is anchored by 2003 Third-Team All-American Greg Eslinger. DEFENSE: Speed will be the main focus on defense for Minnesota this season, as the linebackers and defensive backs are among the quickest in the Big Ten. Even the line got a bit shiftier with the move from tackle to end of senior Darrell Reid. Reid, an All-Big Ten Honorable Mention selection last year, led the team in sacks (5.5) and TFLs (12) last season. Another guy to watch up front is junior NT Anthony Montgomery. At 6-5 and 315 pounds, Montgomery can plug a hole in a hurry. Among the linebackers, juniors Terrance Campbell and Kyle McKenzie are returning starters and the two combined for nearly 150 tackles last year. The third LB is likely to be senior Dominique Sims, but five of the top six backers from last season are back so depth shouldn't be a problem. Starting corners Ukee Dozier and Trumaine Banks are back. Dozier started all 13 games last year and led the team in PBUs with eight, while Banks tallied seven PBUs and an INT. The safeties are relatively new starters, with senior Justin Fraley and junior John Pawielski tabbed for duty. All four DBs are gifted athletes with the ability to play at a high level. Forcing turnovers is an area Mason would like to see vast improvement, as the Gophers came up with just 16 takeaways last season. SPECIAL TEAMS: Senior Rhys Lloyd is back to handle both punting and placekicking duties, and he has all the makings of an All-Big Ten kicker after successfully booting 14-of-18 FGs, including a long of 54 yards. His punting average of 39.2 ypp earned him Honorable Mention All-Big Ten consideration. Both Barber III and Maroney should see time in the return game, and Maroney was particularly effective in that role last season, averaging 25.8 ypr. OUTLOOK: Minnesota's non-conference schedule appears to be a bit tougher than in years past, as the season kicks off with a home tilt against traditional MAC power Toledo. An easy game against I-AA foe Illinois State follows, but a trip to Colorado State on September 18th could be trouble. The Big Ten slate gets underway with back-to-back home games against Northwestern and Penn State followed by a two-game road trek through the state of Michigan to battle both the Wolverines and Spartans. Winnable contests versus Illinois and Indiana are next but frays at Wisconsin and at home against Iowa to close the regular season could throw a monkey wrench into the Gophers' plans. Still, there is little chance UM won't approach double-digit wins and earn its third straight bowl bid, but the team feels it can win the Big Ten as well. Only time, and maybe a little luck, will tell.

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