Music to their ears

Brian Stensaas

NASHVILLE, TN – It was hard to ignore the ear-to-ear toothy smile on the face of Minnesota football coach Glen Mason as he waited to conduct the University band shortly after the Gophers’ 29-14 win over Arkansas in the Music City Bowl.

Winless in two prior bowl games at Minnesota, and posting a forgettable 5-19 conference record in three non-bowl seasons, Mason finally led a team to a postseason win December 30 – the Gophers’ first since 1985.

Leading up to the bowl, Mason and his players talked primarily about the game being the start to 2003, not the end of 2002.

“They never stopped working; they’re resilient,” Mason said of his team. “They kept coming back for more. These kids worked awfully hard for this.”

But successful beginnings are no stranger to the Gophers, who started the year 4-0 and were 7-2 before losing their final four regular season games.

While some teams would take the 0-4 end to the season as a setback, the Gophers stayed positive and worked hard in December for the Big Ten’s sixth and final bowl tie-in.

Not bad for a team without its starting running back, sophomore Marion Barber III, for all but two games and only one senior starter, cornerback Michael Lehan on defense.

Barber, out with a hamstring injury, will be back next season as will the bulk of Minnesota’s prime players.

Though he was slowed by the flu in the Music City Bowl, Terry Jackson II turned more than a few heads in the regular season accumulating 1,281 rushing yards.

Tabbed as a backup behind Barber and Thomas Tapeh, Jackson exploded onto the Big Ten scene Oct. 3 against Illinois, scampering for 159 yards.

He added 239 more the next week against Northwestern and 238 at Michigan State to prove he was for real.

With Tapeh, Barber and Jackson all returning, the Gophers expect their ground game to be one of the best in the Big Ten.

On the flip side, Minnesota’s run defense was nothing to write home about this season. The Gophers allowed 184.8 yards per game on the ground during the year, seventh in the conference.

The team did tighten up in the Music City Bowl, allowing the Razorbacks only 80 yards on the ground. It’s a trend Mason hopes will continue.

“Those young defensemen were under assault at the end there,” Mason said, referring to the last four conference games in which the Gophers faced running-oriented teams. “We had some bruised goods. We just keep telling them if they fly around and play as a group they can play with anybody.”

You have to count down 11 spots on the season tackles list before finding a player who won’t be back on the field come fall.

Such continuity on defense will be something new for Minnesota, which despite its youth finished atop the conference in pass defense, allowing only 178.6 yards per game through the air.

Conversely, Minnesota’s ability to put up good passing numbers falls on the shoulders of senior quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq.

Abdul-Khaliq had another up and down year under center. He threw for 1,968 yards and 18 touchdowns before the bowl, but was erratic at times and tossed 11 interceptions.

Abdul-Khaliq loses his top receiver – Antoine Burns (40 receptions, 438 yards, 4 TDs) – but welcomes back tight end Ben Utecht (32 catches, 403 yards, 5 TDs) and wide receiver Aaron Hosack (28 catches, 599 yards, 3 TDs).

Possibly the biggest question mark is who will be kicking when the Gophers aren’t making it into the end zone.

Gone is Music City Bowl MVP Dan Nystrom and his record five field goals in the game. Nystrom has handled the kicking duties the past four seasons.

Ryan Duffy figures to be the man for the job, working primarily on kickoffs in 2001.

A lot of familiar faces will be around in 2003, all of which have started the year off in successful fashion.

Brian Stensaas welcomes comments at [email protected]