Five keys to meeting high level of expectations

After a season-opening 41-10 win over Tulsa, expectations are running high for Minnesota’s football team. But a quick start last year gave way to a second half fade, when the Gophers lost five of their last six regular season games after starting the season 5-0.

The following are five keys to ensuring a successful season:

Maroney’s durability

Assuming full-time duties as the featured back for the Gophers, the question for Laurence Maroney is whether he can stay healthy all season.

The Gophers have a couple of quality backups in Gary Russell and Amir Pinnix, but they haven’t proved themselves like Maroney has, and nobody knows how they would fare as a starting running back in the Big Ten.

All ‘hands’ on deck

Last season the Gophers started out 5-0 before traveling to Michigan in week six.

The Wolverines had seven different receivers catch a collective 33 balls in the game, compared to the Gophers mere eight grabs split between Jared Ellerson and Ernie Wheelwright.

At times it seemed the Gophers caught the tough ones, but dropped the easy ones. Consistency must improve in the receiving corps. Also, the Gophers need a third receiver to step up as a playmaker this season if they want to overcome stacked defensive fronts during the big games.

Showcase win

Last year the Gophers lost to every ranked opponent they faced, a statistic which cannot continue this season if the Gophers hope to play on Jan. 1.

Their first ranked obstacle looks to be the homecoming game against Purdue, which is currently ranked 13th in the Associated Press Top 25 Poll. The Boilermakers play their first game of the season this Saturday when they play host to Akron.

If the Gophers can get a homecoming win against the Boilermakers, and maybe steal a road win at Michigan or Iowa, they stand a good chance of being amongst the top teams in the Big Ten at the end of the year.

“It’s about momentum,” Maroney said. “You start strong, you defeat a big team and you let the momentum carry you the rest of the year.”

Third down efficiency

The Gophers converted just 39 percent of their third down attempts last season, while letting their opponents make good on 43 percent of their tries.

“Third down was a downfall last year for us,” coach Glen Mason said. “I’d joke many times that third and seven was my worst nightmare. Sometimes on second down I’d say let them get a few more yards and it will be third and three, then maybe we will have a chance.”

Minnesota came through on 50 percent (6 of 12) of its third down plays against Tulsa, but allowed the Golden Hurricane nine third down conversions on 19 attempts (47 percent) – numbers which must improve if the Gophers are to have success in the conference schedule.

Defensive improvement

The Gophers defense took a lot of heat last year for underperforming. The unit ranked last in the Big Ten and 109th out of 117 Division I-A teams in the nation in pass defense and 76th overall.

If the defense can be more reliable this season, it will make a big difference.

“We took a step back last year,” Mason said. “That’s not earth-shattering news. For us to be able to compete this year in the Big Ten we have to be better. And I’m confident that we will be better, but we must improve.”