Sluggish starts against first two foes an early concern for the Gophers

by Ben Goessling

Once you sift through the staggering numbers – a combined 398 yards and 28 points in two first quarters – the even more staggering realization becomes clear.

Minnesota’s football team was basically a fake punt away from trailing Toledo and Illinois State in its first two games.

For all their offensive prowess and talk about a fiercer unit defensively, the No. 22 Gophers certainly haven’t backed it up at the beginning of games.

Punter Rhys Lloyd turned Minnesota’s opening drive against the Rockets into a touchdown with his run off a fake, giving the offense another chance it didn’t expect to have.

And the Gophers’ defense blew two third-down chances to get off the field, eventually allowing touchdowns.

“We started both games very poorly,” coach Glen Mason said. “On offense, we went three-and-out and we gave up a big play on what should be a routine defensive play, a missed tackle (that turned into a long run).”

With a deceptively tough road test at Colorado State looming, the time is now for the Gophers to keep their early futility from becoming a trend.

“We don’t want to have these same mistakes again,” said cornerback Trumaine Banks, whose missed tackle allowed Illinois State’s Ramon Barber to score the game’s first touchdown Saturday. “We’ll fix them in practice and get ready for Colorado State.”

Minnesota’s first offensive possession in each game was eerily similar. Against the Rockets, Laurence Maroney was stuffed by an eight-man front, and Bryan Cupito threw behind tight end Matt Spaeth on second down.

After a dump-off screen to Maroney on third down, the Gophers faced a fourth-and-six. But Lloyd’s unexpected 21-yard scamper saved the drive. The trickery seemed to energize first-time starter Cupito, and the Gophers scored a touchdown four plays later.

“That fake punt, it was basically the game right there,” Cupito said after the win. “It gave us all the momentum.”

Last Saturday, it was Marion Barber III who was thrown for a loss by an eight-man front on Minnesota’s first play from scrimmage. Cupito hit Jakari Wallace for nine yards on second down, but missed Wallace on third down.

“Maybe the first couple drives took some wind out of us, or maybe we expected to score too much,” Cupito said. “I just know I made a lot of dumb decisions, and we’ve got to get better for next week.”

Defensively, the Gophers’ opening drives against the Rockets and Redbirds reveal similar mistakes. Minnesota had third-and-short situations on both drives, but Toledo’s Lance Moore turned a missed tackle into a 14-yard gain off a quick pass, and Barber raced 38 yards for a score on a nearly identical route.

“That’s just basic fundamentals of football,” defensive coordinator Greg Hudson said Saturday. “You’ve just got to tackle the guy.”

It’s one thing to spot teams touchdowns at home; it’s quite another to give up the lead on the road against a 0-2 opponent that desperately needs a win.

And after several players – most notably Barber and Maroney – suffered cramps last Saturday, Minnesota doesn’t want to be playing catch-up in Colorado’s thin air.

“You can’t make those kinds of mistakes,” Mason said. “You make mistakes, you get beat.”