Gophers look to end slump

Murali Balaji

After their 45-15 loss to Ohio State, Gophers players said they looked forward to playing against underachieving Michigan State.
If the Gophers stand a chance of being competent in the Big Ten, they must be able to prove they can win games against less-than-formidable teams. The Spartans are loaded with talent, but they are notorious for losing games they should win.
Could this be the week the Gophers finally put up more points than their opponent?
Gophers on Offense
If one positive could be garnered from last week, it was that the Gophers may have finally found a passing game. Quarterback Andy Persby has played decent thus far, and his development should continue with receivers Luke Leverson, Antoine Henderson and Ron Johnson seeing more action against Michigan State defense.
Running backs Thomas Hamner and Byron Evans couldn’t find much running room against the Buckeyes, but this week could be different. The Spartans are ranked last in the Big Ten against the run, allowing 198.5 yards per game and 4.5 yards per carry.
Look for the Gophers to line up in spread formations to stretch the Spartan defense, with either Hamner or Evans taking quick draws between the tackles. With Leverson and Johnson running intermediate routes, Henderson — who might be the fastest player on offense — will be asked to go deep against an occasionally suspect Spartan secondary.
Sophomore cornerback Renaldo Hill has struggled in place of injured Amp Campbell and the Gophers will try to match him against Leverson in one-on-one situations. Hey, it’s Homecoming, and there could actually be some end zone celebrations by the home team this week.

KEY MATCH-UP: Tackle Adam Haayer versus Defensive end Robaire Smith.
Smith, an All-Big Ten pick in 1997, has been quiet so far with only two sacks. However, Smith has a pedigree for getting to the passer and will be looking to take advantage of one-on-one matchups against Haayer. If the sophomore left tackle can hold his ground against Smith, the passing game may be able to get into an early rhythm. If he can’t … well, check out the tapes of the Penn State game.
Gophers on Defense
The Spartans may not be able to stop anybody, but they can sure score points. Quarterback has always been a position of inconsistency for the team, but it seems as if Bill Burke is finally settling in as the full-time starter. The 6-foot-5 junior has thrown 12 touchdown passes while getting only five passes picked off. His main target is 6-foot-6, 224-pound receiver Plaxico Burress, whose six receiving touchdowns lead the Big Ten. Burress will create major matchup problems for the Gophers’ secondary, especially when he lines up against 5-foot-9 Craig Scruggs. 6-foot-2 Willie Middlebrooks matches up with Burress a little better in size, but his pass coverage skills leave a lot to be desired. Look for the Gophers to play a little more zone; if they don’t, Burke and Burress will have a nice game of toss at Minnesota’s expense. And if Burress isn’t enough, don’t forget about junior tailback Sedric Irvin and receiver Gari Scott. Irvin, whose rushing totals are down from last season, is fourth in the conference in all-purpose yards. He runs with great vision and has the potential to break some long runs with his deceptive speed. Scott has plenty of deep speed, and Burke will be more than willing to test the Gophers’ atrocious pass defense.
KEY MATCH-UP: Middlebrooks versus Burress. In the last few weeks, Middlebrooks, a converted safety, has been on the field on a consistent basis. This has been due to the fact that neither Scruggs nor 5-foot-10 Trevis Graham has been able to size up against bigger opposing receivers. Middlebrooks is a rare combination of size and speed at cornerback, and it looks as if his switch to the position is permanent. However, he is still very raw in his pass coverage and has yet to adjust to the isolation mentality of a true corner.
If Middlebrooks can hold his ground against the bigger, stronger and faster Burress, the Gophers may be able to stay in their regular alignment more often. But if he can’t stay with Burress, the defense might be forced to play out of their comfort zone for the second straight week.