Banged up Gophers filling in the holes

Brian Hall

It was early in the first quarter last Thursday and Illinois’ football team was facing a third down with 12 yards to go on its first possession of the game.

As Illini quarterback Jon Beutjer dropped back he saw his top target, receiver Brandon Lloyd, and fired the ball to him.

It was a logical choice as Minnesota’s top cover corner Mike Lehan stood on the sideline on crutches. But, when the ball got to Lloyd, freshman Ken Williams, who earned his first career start in Lehan’s place, jumped in front and batted the ball away forcing Illinois to punt.

While the play became insignificant over the course of the game, a 31-10 Gophers’ victory, it was important because it proved Williams was going to ably fill in for Lehan.

Williams is one of many fresh faces who have, or are expected to, step up in the face of the Gopher’s myriad of injury problems.

Minnesota has been forced to play without four starters at various points this season.

Williams totaled three tackles and three pass breakups in helping Minnesota shut down the Big Ten’s top passing attack.

“It was great to get out there and play hard,” Williams said. “I found out the night before and coach really inspired me.”

Marion Barber III, the Gophers No. 1 running back entering the season, has only carried the ball a total of 19 times for 69 yards and no touchdowns.

Lehan, a second-team All-Big Ten selection last year, missed the Illini contest with a deep thigh bruise. His availability is unknown for Thursday’s match up with Northwestern.

Starting linebacker Justin Fraley missed the Illinois game also but coach Glen Mason said Friday he expects Fraley to play against the Wildcats. Defensive end Paul Nixon has also missed time recently due to a shoulder injury.

Even quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq suffered an ankle injury against Purdue and has been hobbled since.

Mason, who rarely talks about injuries, is choosing not to worry about the players missing in action. Instead, he is focusing on getting production out of his healthy players.

And those players are trying to give their coach solid performances.

“When your head coach believes you can go out and get the job done it allows you to relax and concentrate on the game,” Williams said.

In each case of a starter’s injury, a younger, less experienced player has stepped in and produced.

Williams’ strong game last Thursday leads to optimism he can perform on a bigger stage.

Nixon’s injury has led to more time for freshman Mark Losli. Freshman Terrance Campbell has filled in admirably for Fraley. But the star of the replacements has been sophomore running back Terry Jackson II.

“We are all ready to grow up,” Williams said. “It feels good to get our chances and show our potential. We accept what we have to do.”

Jackson has filled in for both Barber and junior Thomas Tapeh, at times, and leads the team in rushing. Only four backs in the conference have rushed for more than Jackson’s 554 yards.

Meanwhile, Barber is creating some tough choices for Mason, who spoke last Friday about the possibility of applying for a medical redshirt for Barber.

The sophomore has been bothered all season by a nagging hamstring injury and NCAA regulations state to earn a medical redshirt a player cannot play in 20 percent of, or in the second half of, his team’s season.

This means Barber cannot play again if the Gophers want to redshirt him – a notable loss as they head into the difficult portion of their schedule.