Mason builds on turnaround effort

by Michael Dougherty

With his team at 3-0, Gophers football coach Glen Mason continues to lay the blocks in his rebuilding attempt.
Known for directing what the Minnesota media guide somewhat generously calls “one of the most monumental turnarounds in all of college football” in nine seasons at Kansas, Mason seems to be solidifying his trouble-shooter image here at Minnesota.
After the Gophers’ 41-14 trouncing of Memphis on Saturday at the Metrodome, Mason has his squad exactly where he wants them.
“One of our goals was to be 3-0 in non-conference play,” Mason said. “I’m ecstatic.”
Despite the second-year coach’s apparent happiness, he said he knows the non-conference schedule doesn’t consist of the same level of talent as can be expected from Big Ten opponents.
Minnesota has an open week before traveling to West Lafayette, Ind., Oct. 3 for a the Big Ten opener. Budding All-American candidate Tyrone Carter said he’s glad they have an extra week to prepare for the 2-1 Boilermakers.
“We’ve got an off week here, so it gives us two weeks to think about Purdue,” he said.
Purdue, meanwhile, will spend this week thinking about its weekend trip to South Bend, Ind. to take on up-and-down Notre Dame, and it seems there couldn’t be a better time for the Gophers to score an upset. But Mason said he knows his team is in for a tough game.
“(The off week) comes at an opportune time,” Mason said. “I watched Purdue against Central Florida and they’re a good football team. They beat Notre Dame last year, and they’re probably going to beat them again this week.”
The Gophers unblemished record marks the fifth time in the last 30 years, and the second time in the last three years, that the team has jumped out to a 3-0 record.
In 1996, 1981 and 1976 they started out 3-0, and in 1987 they jumped out to a 5-0 mark. But Minnesota never finished better than 6-5 in any of those seasons.
Nevertheless, Mason and his squad would no doubt be satisfied with a 6-5 record, a record which should get them into a bowl game.
Although the Gophers face a tougher conference schedule this season because they won’t face down-and-out Illinois or mediocre Northwestern, the rest of the talent level in the Big Ten seems to have slipped.
Ohio State is a lone exception, but supposed title contenders Michigan and Michigan State both lost their first two games of the season, and Iowa and Wisconsin also appear to be down from years past.
Minnesota will face Michigan, Michigan State and Iowa at home this year, so the possibility — however slim — for a couple of upsets exists.
Mason’s teams in the past have been known for their tough defenses and special teams, and that pattern seems to be holding.
The Gophers defense, which entered the Memphis game ranked third in the nation against the rush, held the Tigers to 98 yards on Saturday, while the defense and special teams each scored a touchdown.
Gophers assistant coach Mark Snyder, who is in charge of the punt block team, made a Joe Namath-like vow to Mason and the team before the game week when he guaranteed a block against Memphis.
“I was just trying to instill some confidence in them,” Snyder said. “It was more of a motivation factor.”
Snyder also said he sees a difference in this year’s team compared to last season, a difference he considers a big part of a winning mindset.
“Last year in the Big Ten we had four opportunities to block punts but didn’t make the play,” Snyder said. “And that can’t happen if we’re going to be good. I think that’s the difference from this year to last — we have that confidence.”