Football team must stay healthy to keep up winning ways

Brian Stensaas

As we settle back into the uncomfortable seats of campus classrooms, it’s always nice to dabble in a little bit of optimism.

Hey, everyone starts out the semester with an “A,” right? The same goes for sports; every team starts out the year with a perfect record. And with two games down, Minnesota’s football team is still unscathed, hammering Troy State on Saturday 48-7 to push its record to 2-0.

The popular thing to do these days is to rip coach Glen Mason and the entire Minnesota athletics department for scheduling weak preseason opponents. Twice in as many weeks has the word “creampuff” been in a headline in other papers. And rightfully so.

Rather than add fuel to that inferno, why not step back and take a look at a different issue?

The Gophers believe this is the year for them – the year in which all the disappointment of close losses and blowouts go the way of the dodo. Sports Illustrated agrees. So do the likes of Kirk Herbstreit and other college football analysts. Many are sharing the opinion that the Gophers might indeed make some noise in the Big Ten this year.

Sure, why not? Minnesota returns its starting quarterback, its top rusher and an All-America-caliber tight end from last year’s Music City Bowl champion squad. Not to mention the Gophers have been blessed with a less than stellar 2003 schedule (missing defending national champion Ohio State and a revamped Purdue squad – Minnesota hasn’t beaten the Boilermakers since 1995).

Practices and games have been solid and no one is more excited than Mason, saying at last month’s media day, “I always thought I’ve been optimistic about our team, but I’m more optimistic now. Why? Because we have more pieces in place.”

Good for you, coach. You’ve got the pieces in their right places. Bring on the super glue, though. The real question is: Can you keep them together?

Minnesota has always had the pieces. It had the pieces last year, but they were brittle. Never had the words “he’s in treatment” been heard so much than last season. Running back Marion Barber III – fresh off a 6.3 yards-per-carry freshman season – missed virtually all of 2002 with a hamstring injury. Quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq was rarely seen not limping, and tight end Ben Utecht missed practices and slowed in games because of a foot injury.

Utecht made a beautiful 41-yard sprawling catch Sept. 6 against Tulsa, prompting Abdul-Khaliq to say afterward, “There was a point last season Ben wouldn’t be able to make that catch because he was hurt.”

Now Utecht is ailing again, this time with a hip strain. He did not play Saturday.

You can’t win with injured players. It was only after a layoff lasting more than a month – prime rehab time – the Gophers bounced back from an 0-4 end to last year’s regular season to defeat Arkansas in Nashville, Tenn.

Mason has been vocal about the quality doctors on his staff. He trusts them to make the right decisions on his players’ ailments and to administer proper treatment. But the sad truth is, if team docs are being forced to make those diagnoses, it is unlikely they will be coming in the same breath as bragging about wins.

Yes, Minnesota might make some noise in the Big Ten. But just hope it’s not in the form of a “snap,” “tear” or “pop.”