Quick scoring starts vital to U’s success

Brett Angel

Start fast, finish faster.

Following that strategy would seem to give any team a pretty good chance to win. But in the case of Minnesota’s football team, the process has been refined a step further.

In their first four games this season, the 24th-ranked Gophers’ formula for success has proved to be more like this: Start fast enough so the finish is just a formality.

“I think all coaches emphasize (the quick start),” coach Glen Mason said. “I mean, do you want to start slow?”

Led by a quick-strike offense that has outscored its opponents 48-7 in the first quarter of its four nonconference games, Minnesota has turned the final quarter of games from crunch time into a break time. Instead of trying to pull out a victory on the field, starters spend the time riding stationary bikes and chatting on the sidelines.

Although Mason does not script plays for the offense’s opening series the way some teams do, the Gophers have been able to pick apart opposing defenses and score with regularity on its opening drives.

In Saturday’s 48-14 blowout of Louisiana-Lafayette, Minnesota found the end zone just 4:22 into the game and on four of its first five possessions, to stake itself to a 31-0 advantage.

A week earlier against Ohio, the Gophers needed just 2:55 to get on the scoreboard with a touchdown.

The only game this year in which Minnesota didn’t score at least 10 points in the first quarter was the season opener versus Tulsa. The Gophers wound up leading that game 35-0 at halftime.

“It means everything,” Minnesota quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq said. “If you can get a touchdown on your first drive it just gives your offense so much confidence, and also your defense because it gives them some leway.”

Not that starting fast guarantees a win. In the Gophers’ eight Big Ten games a year ago, the team that scored first won just three times.

But in trying to become the first Minnesota team to start 5-0 since 1987, starting out fast wouldn’t hurt the Gophers’ chances.

The context surrounding this Saturday’s game at Penn State appears remarkably similar to last year’s conference opener at Purdue. Minnesota brought a perfect 4-0 record to Ross-Ade Stadium last September before losing 28-15.

In that game, the Boilermakers scored a touchdown on the game’s opening drive to grab a 7-0 lead.

This year, Minnesota will try for a better outcome in an even harsher environment.

The 107,000-seat Beaver Stadium in Happy Valley is almost twice as big as Purdue’s home field.

Getting on the scoreboard first could potentially be the difference between taking the crowd out of the game and attempting a comeback in a deafening sea of blue and white.

“We emphasize it, but you can’t really rely on (the fast start),” Mason said. “You have to expect that you’ll play the full 60 minutes and it might take you until the last play to win the game.

“If it doesn’t happen all of a sudden you don’t want your guys to be battle shook.”

Even with a fast start against the Lions, Abdul-Khaliq and the rest of Minnesota’s starting lineup will almost certainly be on the field in the fourth quarter Saturday, either preserving a win or hoping for a comeback.

But the Gophers’ senior quarterback still enjoyed getting a little time off against Louisiana-Lafayette.

“It was cool,” Abdul-Khaliq said. “We just got up so many points and it’s not a game where you want to embarrass anybody. But it was fun being on the sideline, being able to watch.”