Gophers still need to balance offense

Eric Decker's heroics alone will not be enough to beat powerhouse defenses.

Austin Cumblad

Gophers wide receiver Eric Decker walked off the field and down the tunnel, ankle tweaked, chin stitched and mouth still slightly numb. Rough day? Not for Decker. In fact, it was a pretty standard Saturday for the senior. For him, welts, limps and gouges are a way of life. ThatâÄôs the territory Decker treads as a 2008 Biletnikoff Award finalist and the biggest receiving threat on the field. Not only do opposing defenses focus most of their energy on Decker, anytime they get a shot at him, they make the most of it. Take for example the first play of the second quarter Saturday: Minnesota was trailing No. 8 California 14-0 but threatening on the 26-yard line . Quarterback Adam WeberâÄôs protection broke down, he rolled to the right and threw high for Decker on the sideline. Decker went up and got the ball as Bears safety Sean Cattouse drilled him with a bone-rattling helmet-to-chinstrap hit. That Decker held onto the football was remarkable; that he walked to the bench minutes later, blood staining his chin and jersey, and didnâÄôt miss a play âÄî well, thatâÄôs just durable. Despite DeckerâÄôs efforts, the Gophers have struggled with consistency elsewhere in the offense. The ground game especially has yet to pick up steam; MinnesotaâÄôs 85.67 rushing yards per game ranks 109th among Football Bowl Subdivision teams . âÄúAs the season goes âÄî especially when you get into the Big Ten âÄî weâÄôre going to have to run the ball,âÄù Weber said. âÄúWeâÄôre going to have to establish the run; weâÄôre going to have to average 4 yards per carry.âÄù Sophomore receivers Brandon Green and Troy Stoudermire have big play potential but have yet to exhibit it. After DeckerâÄôs 415 receiving yards, which are third-best in the country, Green and Stoudermire have 93 and 75, respectively . Impressive as DeckerâÄôs numbers are, they wonâÄôt be sustained if the Gophers remain one-dimensional. Big Ten teams are more familiar with him than MinnesotaâÄôs nonconference opponents, and, especially late last season as the abuse he took caught up with him, conference teams were able to slow him down. ThatâÄôs not to say the offense hasnâÄôt shown flashes of diversity. Weber distributed the ball well during the GophersâÄô late game-tying drive against Syracuse in week one. Against Air Force in week two, the offense chewed up five minutes of clock in the fourth quarter with a balanced 64-yard drive that led to an Eric Ellestad field goal, putting Minnesota up by two scores with 5:13 remaining. But as Weber said Saturday after the GophersâÄô 35-21 loss to Cal, success has come in âÄúspurts.âÄù âÄúI like our plan, I like our thoughts; we just have to do a better job of executing throughout the whole game,âÄù head coach Tim Brewster said Sunday. It starts up front. Eskridge and Bennett are going nowhere because there are no holes. Weber keeps looking to Decker because Decker is the best at improvising when the pocket breaks down. Brewster said the personnel on the offensive line will remain the same, but there is clearly much work to be done. âÄúWe ainâÄôt making any trades,âÄù Brewster said. âÄúThose guys have a chance to be a good offensive line, a solid group, and weâÄôre continuing to work hard at being a solid group.âÄù Until then, there will probably be a lot of breath holding as Decker comes up limping or wincing or bleeding after heâÄôs knocked silly yet again by a defensive back. But with history as a model, chances are heâÄôll be in the huddle for the next play. Brewster said Sunday that Decker would practice all week and would be ready for Northwestern despite being hobbled with a left ankle injury late in the fourth quarter against Cal. âÄúHeâÄôs as tough a kid as there is in the country,âÄù Brewster said Saturday after the game. âÄúHe is as tough as nails.âÄù