Gophers ground game dropping the ball

Ben Goessling

EAST LANSING, Mich. – Of all the psychological wounds inflicted on Minnesota’s football team after a 51-17 loss to Michigan State, the most damaging one might have come from the Spartans’ DeAndra Cobb.

The Michigan State running back, like Michigan’s Michael Hart last weekend, was only too happy to point out the Spartans’ decisive edge over Minnesota on the ground.

After another week of talk about Minnesota’s potent running game, it was Michigan State that dominated the rushing battle, posting 324 yards on the ground to just 102 for Minnesota. Laurence Maroney, Minnesota’s top rusher, had 54 yards – one more than Jason Teague, the Spartans’ fourth-best rusher.

“The papers were telling us their running backs were going to run all over us,” Spartans running back DeAndra Cobb said. “We knew they were one of the top offenses in the Big Ten, and we wanted to prove we can compete with anyone on our schedule.”

Part of the problem was that Minnesota was behind from the minute it got the ball. But after quarterback Bryan Cupito attempted a career-high 33 passes, completing just 11 and throwing two interceptions, there was something about Minnesota’s offense that looked even more stalled than in the crucial minutes of the Michigan game Oct. 9.

“I’ve said before, we’re not a one-dimensional team, but we were a no-dimensional team today,” coach Glen Mason said.

The Gophers’ run attack again failed to come through, and Minnesota was forced into an uneasy reliance on the passing game.

Cupito did hit Ernie Wheelwright for two long scores. But the sophomore quarterback, who made his living spreading the ball around during Minnesota’s season-opening five-game win streak, only found Wheelwright and Jakari Wallace more than one time.

Perhaps the most condemning statistic was this one: On a day when they were forced to battle from behind as soon as they got the ball, Minnesota went 1-for-13 on third downs.

As a result, the Gophers went for it four times on fourth down, converting just one (a 35-yard touchdown pass to Wheelwright in the fourth quarter) and missing two chances to answer Michigan State in the first half.

Down 28-10, Minnesota had the ball on Michigan State’s 10-yard line with just under 11 minutes left in the second quarter. Maroney ran nine yards on a third-and-four, but officials ruled the Spartans’ David Herron called timeout before the Gophers snapped the ball. When the down was repeated, Maroney gained just one yard, and Cupito’s fourth-down pass was tipped before tight end Matt Spaeth lost the handle on it in the end zone.

“If we could have just gotten one of the two, it would have helped,” Cupito said. “The one where I missed Matt in the end zone especially hurt us.”

The Gophers now must come to grips with the possibility they need more than Marion Barber III and Maroney to survive offensively. Minnesota has been outrushed each of the last two games and, counting the second half against Michigan, has just 136 yards rushing in its last six quarters.

It’s a far cry from the first five games, when the Gophers rushed for more than 250 yards every time. Neither Barber nor Maroney were made available to the media after the game, but Mason sounded more than a little distraught about Minnesota’s sudden dearth of big plays on the ground.

“We were supposed to be a good rushing team,” he said. “When we struggle with the run, it’s hard to win.”