U ready for promising football future

Murali Balaji

Mike Dougherty
With all signs pointing to a seven-win season next year (refer to lightweight schedule below), let’s take a moment and reflect on this season’s highlights and lowlights.

Team MVP: Hands down, this award goes to strong safety Tyrone Carter. The junior from Pompano Beach, Fla., led the team in tackles (158), solo tackles (a school record 127), tackles for loss (15), sacks (8), fumble recoveries (3) and forced fumbles (2).
Not only does he excel on defense, but Carter is also on the kickoff and kick return teams. He opened the season with an 86-yard kickoff return for a touchdown on the first play of the game against Arkansas State on Sept. 5, en route to averaging a school-record 26.7 yards per return.
But don’t just take our word for it. At Monday’s team banquet Carter was given the Bronko Nagurski Award, presented annually to the team’s most valuable player.
Carter spearheaded a defense with the tenacious attitude defensive coordinator David Gibbs pounds home.
“Our defense only knows how to play one way,” Carter said after the Iowa win, “and that way is hard.”
Offensive MVP: Finishing with 60 receptions for 854 yards and nine touchdowns provided some strong arguments for Luke Leverson, and the junior from Miami gets the nod.
After 31 receptions for 442 yards and one touchdown in his first two seasons with Minnesota, Leverson exploded. His 60 receptions fell two shy of the team record held by Tutu Atwell and his nine touchdowns were also the second-highest total in team history.
Leverson was also a threat as a punt returner, highlighted by his slashing and swerving 68-yard return for a touchdown in the 19-18 Homecoming win over Michigan State. He also caught 10 balls in that game for 137 yards and a touchdown.
“I’m a team player and it doesn’t matter if I break (Atwell’s record) or not,” Leverson said. “I’m just happy the team won.”
Defensive MVP: Carter, again.
Newcomer of the Year: Wide receiver Ron Johnson. He emerged as a solid complement to Leverson in the passing attack. What seems even more impressive is that Johnson made great strides as a true freshman.
The 6-foot-3, 205-pound Johnson broke Ryan Thelwell’s freshman receiving records in catches (38) and touchdowns (4), while helping the Gophers establish a semblance of a passing game near the end of the season.
And it looks as if things might only improve for Johnson.
“Tony (Henderson), Luke and I are going to stay up (in the Twin Cities) in the summer and work out,” Johnson said.
Offensive play of the year: The Gophers weren’t in too many positions where the outcome of the game was decided by one play, but quarterback Billy Cockerham’s Oct. 24 game-winning scramble against Michigan State is an exception.
Facing a third-and-15 late in the game, Cockerham saw a hole in the Spartan defense and darted for 25 yards. A few plays later, Adam Bailey kicked a 37-yard field goal to win the game, 19-18.
Had the Gophers lost, they would have remained winless in the Big Ten, but the Homecoming victory — set up by Cockerham’s run — allowed the team to hold on to slim bowl hopes and boosted its confidence for the remainder of the season.
Defensive play of the year: In the Michigan State game, linebackers Parc Williams and Ben Mezera sacked Spartans’ quarterback Bill Burke early in the game. Williams hit him high and Mezera hit him low, and Burke spent the rest of the game on the end of the bench trying to find a happy place.
With Burke forced from the game, freshman Ryan Van Dyke entered the game and played admirably. But Burke’s absence clearly opened the door for the Gophers upset.
Embarrassing moment of the year: While giving up almost 700 total yards of offense and 56 points to Purdue turned Mason’s face red with anger, kicker Adam Bailey’s horrific day at Indiana had to be the most shameful.
Missing not one, not two, not three, but four short kicks in the one-point bowl-eliminating loss literally brought Bailey to tears.
Honorable mention: Mason’s clumsy crash, er, dash to the south end zone after Parc Williams victory-clinching interception against Michigan State.
Mason rumbled, bumbled and stumbled to the celebratory mountain of maroon and gold, only to get trampled a few yards short of the pile. Nice try, Coach.

Bowl Party Like it’s 1999
The Gophers 1998 schedule was ranked as the 16th toughest in the nation with seven games against 1997 bowl teams.
But the 1999 schedule consists of some cupcakes that could very well have trouble winning a game at this Saturday’s Prep Bowl, let alone in Division I football.
This year, the Gophers played fifth-ranked Ohio State (10-1), ninth-ranked Wisconsin (10-1) and bowl bound Purdue (8-4) as part of their five-game road schedule.
But next season Minnesota will have seven home games and only four road games. The Gophers will travel to Northwestern (Oct. 2), Illinois (Oct. 16), Iowa (Nov. 20) and Penn State (Nov. 6). Those first three teams had a combined record of 9-25 this season.
The seven home games include: Ohio University (Sept. 4), Northeast Louisiana (Sept. 11), Illinois State (Sept. 18), Wisconsin (Oct. 9), Ohio State (Oct. 23), Purdue (Oct. 30) and Indiana (Nov. 13).

Gophers Team Awards
At the team’s banquet Monday night at the Minneapolis Athletic Club several more awards were handed out:
Carl Eller Award — Defensive MVP: Tyrone Carter.
Bruce Smith Award — Offensive MVP: Luke Leverson.
Bobby Bell Award — Outstanding special teams player: Adam Bailey.
Butch Nash Award — Competitiveness on the field and in the classroom: Parc Williams.
Paul Giel Award — Total unselfishness and most concern for the University: Troy Duerr
Defensive Demo — Outstanding performance on the defensive demonstration team: Karon Riley.
Offensive Demo — Outstanding performance on the offensive demonstration team: Scooter Baugus.