Quarterback duel takes center stage

David La

One year ago, the Minnesota football team played Indiana in a game of two programs with 4-5 records trying to keep hopes of a winning season alive.
When it ended in Bloomington, Ind., the Gophers added another check in the loss column — a 20-19 near-miss.
One year later, No. 20 Minnesota (6-3, 3-3 in the Big Ten) is over the hump. Fresh off win No. 6, the team must now show itself worthy of its impending bowl bid. A pummeling of the Hoosiers (4-5, 3-3) might do the trick, and the Gophers figure to be aptly motivated after last season’s debacle.
The Gophers are led by a quarterback enjoying a career-best season. Senior Billy Cockerham arrived as the quarterback Minnesota can lose with, but now can’t win without.
“I have a lot better grasp of the game and the offense overall,” Cockerham said. “It’s just me being more decisive. Last year, it seemed like it was a mess out there. If I watched that film now, I’d laugh.”
Through nine games this season, Cockerham’s play is entirely better than his giggle-inducing 1998 performance. He’s completed more passes (107), for more yards (1,536), and is one touchdown short (10) of tying his mark last year.
He gives credit to quarterback coach Tony Petersen for, “Knowing where we’re supposed to go before the snap, instead of trying to do things on the run. This position doesn’t work that way.”
While infamous outlaw Billy the Kid found life on the run to be ultimately costly, Billy the quarterback is adept at making defenses pay with his ability to run.
Cockerham is likely to double his rushing output from last season, and he’s already run for scores eight times, compared to twice last year.
But the most important aspect of Cockerham’s game is his decision making. As he says, “At the quarterback position, it doesn’t really matter how tall you are or how strong your arm is. It’s smarts.”
As the 6-foot-1, 217 pound Cockerham’s football IQ rose this year, his interceptions fell. After throwing 12 picks last year, Cockerham is down to five thus far.
While Cockerham is the offensive leader of a bowl-bound program, he is but a statistical stun gun to the lightening bolt that is Indiana quarterback Antwaan Randle El.
“You can’t stop him, nobody’s stopped him,” Gophers defensive coordinator David Gibbs said. “You try to contain him as best as you can and hope he doesn’t pull the ball down too many times and run with it. That’s when he’s scary. He’s a special player and they’ve got him in the right spot — he touches the ball every play.”
Randle El, the 1998 Big Ten freshman of the year, is enjoying a Heisman-caliber second season. If fantasy football leagues spring up in the college ranks, this guy is pick number one.
Why, you ask? Well, Randle El has thrown 16 touchdowns and run for 12 more. That’s a personal hand in 28 touchdowns, which is more than two Big Ten teams (Iowa, 17 and Northwestern, 14).
Mason calls Randle El the best athlete in the nation at quarterback — an exciting game-breaker who can take it the distance on any touch.
The Hoosiers’ option offense is a formation that’s troubled the Gophers defense this year. Ditto quarterbacks who scramble. With Randle El at the controls, Minnesota will see the option run at its best.
“When he runs the option, he ducks inside and when you go to tackle him, he flips the ball over his head,” Mason said.
Perhaps Randle El’s deft ball control comes from his experiences playing basketball for Indiana. The 5-foot-10, 190-pound Randle El spent last winter as the Hoosiers’ reserve point guard.
Ironically, the offensive terror of the gridiron is known more for his defensive prowess on the hardwood.
The subject of Minnesota’s defense is at the forefront of Randle El’s game thoughts heading into the Metrodome.
“(The Gophers are) just an attacking defense and they play really hard,” Randle El said. “We have to learn how to make the critical plays when the game is in the balance.”
Indiana coach Cam Cameron calls such ability the most important difference between Cockerham and Randle El.
“One thing’s Billy done is found a way to keep his team in ball games,” Cameron said. “He gives them an opportunity going into to every ball game to win the game.”

ùAs of Thursday evening, 41,500 tickets are sold for Saturday’s game.

David La Vaque covers football and welcomes comments at [email protected]