Running game, special teams struggle minus Barber

Marion Barber III left Saturday’s game with a groin injury, and the Gophers never recovered.

Aaron Blake

On the first offensive play of the game for Minnesota football Saturday, Marion Barber III took a handoff and accelerated to the left, dropped an authoritative right shoulder into Iowa’s Antwan Allen and shoved Sean Considine to the ground before falling forward for a 12-yard gain and a first down.

It was an encouraging play for the nation’s second-best rushing offense that was matching up with Iowa’s rushing defense, then fifth in the country.

But after ripping off a 13-yard gain on the next play, Barber would not see the ball again, standing on the sidelines with a groin injury.

Minus the Big Ten’s third-leading rusher, the Gophers (9-3, 5-3 Big Ten) struggled in running the ball and on kick- and punt-returns in their 40-22 loss to the 17th-ranked Hawkeyes (8-3, 4-3).

“He pulled a muscle – nothing serious, but he couldn’t play,” Minnesota coach Glen Mason said of Barber’s injury.

Minnesota accumulated 175 yards on the ground, but the team averaged less than 3.5 yards per carry. Before the game, the Gophers averaged a nation-leading 5.8 yards per carry.

“They came out early and they were humming in the run game,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “But we settled down and we started playing after that.”

Minnesota freshman Laurence Maroney was the focal point of the rushing attack with Barber out. He gained 69 yards on 24 carries – well below his previous average of 7.5 yards per carry.

In addition, his fumble on the goal line in the second quarter was a big momentum-shifter in the game.

In each of the past three games, both Barber and Maroney went over 100 yards.

“Maroney had to do a lot more work than he has to date, so it affected us some,” Mason said. “Iowa has a top-notch defense – very physical and very good. It’s tough for any true freshman to play against a seasoned defense like that.”

With the exception of two big gains, senior Thomas Tapeh was also ineffective, finishing with 58 yards on nine carries.

Ferentz said minus the potent running game the Gophers have become accustomed to, they were forced into too many passing situations.

Despite finishing the game with 51 rushes versus 46 passes, Minnesota quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq often found himself scrambling because he could not find a receiver.

The Hawkeyes rush defense shut him down too, and he finished with 22 yards on 13 carries. The Iowa pass rush also got the best of him, forcing three fumbles and an under-thrown interception when he was hit in the third quarter.

“They were hitting hard,” Maroney said. “They were swarming to the ball. I have to give it to them; they have a nice defense, an excellent defense. They just came out here and outplayed our offense.”

But the offense wasn’t the only area that struggled without Barber. The sophomore could only watch from the sidelines as his special teams replacement, sophomore safety Quentin White, had trouble holding on to the ball.

With the Big Ten’s second-leading punt returner out, White handled punts. Also, Hawkeyes kicker Nate Kaeding did not have to pick his poison on kickoffs, where Barber and Maroney are usually waiting deep.

When the score was 10-6 midway through the second quarter, a David Bradley punt fell through White’s arms. Thankfully for the Gophers, Trumaine Banks was there to pick the ball up. But the return went for minus seven yards.

On a third quarter kickoff, White could not handle a bouncing ball and ended up with a 5-yard return to the 8-yard line.

As a whole, the Gophers started just one of their 15 drives beyond their own 33-yard line, and that came as a result of an Eli Ward interception in the first quarter.

In the end, not much went right in the game’s aspects Barber is usually involved in.

“It definitely stung us (to lose Barber),” Abdul-Khaliq said. “You hate to lose him – especially at the end of the season. Playing as hard as we do every game, guys kind of get worn down. It’s just a tragedy it had to happen (Saturday).”