Offensive woes disastrous for Minnesota

by Tyler Rushmeyer

It’s hard to imagine reaching the pinnacle of a season when a team is sitting at 0-3 in conference play. But, for Minnesota’s passing game, it is shaping up to be just that.

Nearly three weeks ago, in a game that ended so wrong for the Gophers, one thing went incredibly right.

Senior quarterback Bryan Cupito had a near-career day, placing the ball in the hands of six receivers, while senior wide receiver Logan Payne continued his emergence as a top receiver in the Big Ten.

Since that day, the passing game has been an ugly combination of missed routes, sacks and dropped passes.

And no one has personified the shift for the worse more than Payne, who has quickly faded in recent weeks after solidifying himself as Minnesota’s premier offensive threat.

For the Gophers, getting annihilated by Wisconsin came with an excuse: the credit of a tough Badger defense and a hostile crowd.

Cupito called the game “embarrassing.” A visibly frustrated Payne seemingly disappeared, catching just two passes for six yards.

Flash forward one week to the game against North Dakota State. In what most would

call an embarrassing victory, Cupito didn’t fair much better, and Payne, who had 35 receptions for nearly 500 yards and seven touchdowns before the two-week tailspin, finished with two receptions for 19 yards.

“It’s frustrating Ö we should be scoring 25 points every week,” Cupito said. “We’re just not making plays and I’ll put a lot of that on my shoulders.”

Although Cupito may be quick to take the blame, the passing game works on the coordination of receiver and passer and no one’s absence has been felt more than Payne’s.

Coach Glen Mason said he realizes the importance of his senior receiver.

“Someone asked me the question the other day, ‘As Logan Payne goes, does that mean that’s the way you go?’ ” he said. “That’s the wrong way to look at it. I think the way we go is the way Logan Payne goes.”

With fellow senior Matt Spaeth scheduled to watch Saturday’s game from the sidelines, Payne will need to regain his early-season form if the Gophers want to avoid a third consecutive embarrassing week.

No one realizes that more than his quarterback.

“I’m trying to spread it out a bit Ö other guys are coming along,” Cupito said. “But Logan has to get the ball for us to have chance to win.”

Both Payne and redshirt freshman wide receiver Eric Decker point to small breakdowns in the offensive unit as the main contributor to the recent rut of the passing game.

Whether it is poor protection, missed reads or just running into good coverage, it’s been difficult to get all 11 guys on the same page, Payne said, adding that the increased attention he has garnered by opposing defenses has been frustrating at times.

“Sometimes it’s the way it goes as a receiver. We just need to take what the defense gives us,” he said. “I’m a big believer in team Ö only one stat matters, and that’s wins and losses. Right now we’re not getting it done.”

As a redshirt freshman, Decker regards Payne as a leader for the offensive unit and said that for the offense to click, the ball needs to be in his hands.

“For a player of his caliber, two receptions a game is not enough,” he said. “We need to find a way to get him the ball. Maybe he can give us that spark and get this thing rolling again.”

Minnesota will need to quickly find what it has been missing before facing off against the best team in the nation – Ohio State – this weekend.

Payne, who has just four games left in his college career, said the Gophers can’t hold anything back down the stretch.

“We got nothing to lose,” he said. “Let’s just let it all hang out. Take chances, take risks, and let it fly Ö we’re still fighting.”