Like a wrestler working his way through tough opponents in the championship bracket of a tournament, Minnesota’s football opponents have gradually increased in difficulty so far this season.
Now, the unseeded heavy underdog comes to town.
The Gophers (3-0) face Buffalo this weekend at the Metrodome. The Bulls (1-2) most recently dropped a 24-3 decision to Connecticut and have twice been eliminated as a football program, only to resurface. They finally re-entered Division I in 1999, the first time since 1970.
The obvious question is whether or not Buffalo will be a decent tune-up for Minnesota’s upcoming Big Ten season, which opens Sept. 28 in West Lafayette, Ind.
The Bulls rank 86th nationally in team defense, allowing 386 yards per game. Not bad, considering a pair of Big Ten teams – Iowa (89) and Northwestern (112) rank lower. But also consider Buffalo’s three foes: Lehigh (D-I AA), Rutgers and the Huskies.
The three together have averaged 324 yards per game compared to Minnesota’s 409.
However, the not so obvious thought is whether or not Gophers coach Glen Mason should suit up his injured players in the final non-conference game. Virtually the entire team is banged and bruised from back-to-back physical match-ups with Louisiana-Lafayette and Toledo. But some – notably running back Marion Barber III – are a little more serious.
“I understand the question,” Mason said. “But then you worry about going into Big Ten play. Are you battle-hardened to go?
“It makes sense, but there’s a concern on the other end.”
Minnesota has played two of its three games without Barber, the team’s top returning rusher, who is battling a hamstring injury. Using a variety of weapons, the Gophers have managed an undefeated record and a place in the top half nationally in total offense.
While no one on the Minnesota staff is happy about Barber being sidelined, running back Terry Jackson II has been given a chance to shine. The sophomore entered the season with 87-career rushing yards. He nearly matched that last Saturday, gaining 83 yards against the Rockets.
“Look at how much he’s done,” Mason said of Jackson. “He hasn’t missed a beat. He’s done a lot more because guys have been gone.”
Mason said it was also a matter of position and type of injury.
If it were an offensive lineman with a slight hamstring pull, it’s likely the muscle would be taped up and the player would be right back out on the field.
Tight end Scooter Baugus and safety Justin Isom both sustained concussions against Toledo and could be cleared to play against the Bulls.
But a running back?
“(Barber) is chomping at the bit to get back in there,” Mason said. “We thought we had him healthy last week, but the trainer thought we should hold him out because otherwise you keep doing this over and over.”
Jackson took the majority of repetitions in practice last week and was rewarded with his first career start. He could likely see number two on Saturday.