Reputable offense sputters versus Lions

Ben Goessling

They’re headed to the Detroit area next weekend for the biggest game of the season, so perhaps it’s appropriate to describe the Gophers’ football offensive performance against Penn State on Saturday night like this:

Instead of running as a finely-tuned sports car, the Gophers turned in a showing similar to that of a 1989 Toyota Corolla.

The mileage was there, but the performance – not so much.

On a night in which their defense made the most of game-turning plays, the Gophers’ offense fell flat in the 16-7 win, missing several chances to split open an otherwise tense game.

Minnesota generated 288 yards on the ground and posted 401 yards of total offense. But almost every other statistical category shows an uneven performance from a team that figures to need all of its faculties when it faces No. 18 Michigan on Saturday.

“I felt the offense was very inconsistent tonight,” coach Glen Mason said. “We were limited in finding open receivers and to plug away more than we have been.”

Quarterback Bryan Cupito finished 8-for-18 for just 113 yards and threw the first interception of his college career.

The pass, picked off by the Lions’ Tim Shaw, was tipped by defensive end Tamba Hali. But it was probably appropriate payment for several other throws into coverage that could have been intercepted.

“The quarterback didn’t play that well tonight,” Cupito said. “I didn’t make a lot of plays, and that’s what it came down to.”

Minnesota had just five first downs through the air – down from 10 last week – and went just 6-for-17 on third down.

The Gophers converted 12 of 19 third-down chances last week.

“We missed a third-and-1 opportunity late in the game that would have run out the clock,” Mason said. “When you’re up 16-7, getting the first down isn’t as big a deal as when it’s 16-10.”

Even Minnesota’s running game lacked its usual punch. Laurence Maroney broke a 64-yard run in the first quarter. But aside from that, the Gophers averaged just over four yards per carry, stymied by a Penn State defense that generated a better push against Minnesota’s offensive line than anyone has all year.

Marion Barber III missed going more than 100 yards for the second consecutive game after beginning the year with three straight 100-yard outings.

He finished with 88 yards on 21 carries, breaking four tackles on his way into the end zone from 19 yards out in the third quarter, but gained three yards or less on 10 rushing attempts.

The Gophers called Penn State’s defense the best they’ve seen all year, praising a scrappy effort that saw the Lions make eight tackles for a loss and bat down three passes at the line.

“I don’t have to teach them how to fight. I just have to teach them how to win,” Penn State coach Joe Paterno said.

As for the Gophers, there isn’t much they need to learn on offense. But it’s clear a few things need to be fixed before next weekend’s game at Michigan.

“(Monday), I’ll go back and watch the mistakes I made tonight. We’ve just got to clean those up,” Cupito said. “We can’t have those next week, and hopefully the offense clicks a little better.”