Defense puts on a show in spring game

Brian Stensaas

As last season came to a close, a constant theme developed among players and coaches of Minnesota’s football team:

Stop the run.

Down the stretch, the Gophers were less than stellar at limiting opponents’ ground attacks, allowing an average of 344.6 yards rushing the final three regular season games.

But Saturday at the Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex, a strong gathering of football faithful braving the drizzle were treated to an impressive display of run stoppage against arguably three of the Big Ten’s top running backs.

Behind that effort and the skills of two other defenders, the White defeated the Maroon 24-6 in the annual spring game.

White consisted of the first-team defense and reserve offensive players. The Maroon team was made up of starting offense and back-up defense.

“The defense was awfully good today,” coach Glen Mason said. “We’ve got three good running backs, they’ve all improved. (And) it was pretty tough to move the ball.”

Despite the improvement, the three Maroon backs – Marion Barber III, Thomas Tapeh and Terry Jackson II – were stuffed by the first-team defense. Barber, who missed basically all of last season because of a hamstring injury, led the Maroon with 30 yards on the ground.

Though it was on a practice field with no real implications, Barber said it felt good to be back playing in front of fans again.

“I’m smarter now,” said Barber, who scampered for 742 yards and seven touchdowns as a freshman. “I don’t even think about the hamstring anymore. It doesn’t bother me. I was loose and ready to go today, the defense just got us.”

In addition to the solid work on the defensive line, the defensive secondary was equally – if not more – impressive.

After quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq opened the game with a nifty 52-yard pass to tight end Ben Utecht, the senior was schooled by his top defenders. Middle linebacker Dominique Sims picked off Abdul-Khaliq’s pass with 8:35 to play in the first half and returned it 62 yards for a touchdown.

Late in the game, Abdul-Khaliq was picked off again. This time, a tipped ball fell right into the hands of Justin Isom, who returned it 86 yards for another White defensive score.

“(The defense) came out and whooped up on the offense, and I expect that,” Abdul-Khaliq said. “If we go out there and are scoring all over our defense, something is wrong.

“This was the best spring game I have been a part of.”

The Gophers are now done with spring ball and will commence Aug. 9 in preparation for the Aug. 30 season opener against Tulsa.

No ma’am

Mason and the Minnesota coaching staff have received a lot of publicity in recent days, and it has nothing to do with a seemingly improved team.

Instead, Mason is drawing attention because of his decision not to allow Mary Nystrom, sister to four-year Minnesota kicker Dan Nystrom, to try out for the squad.

The Gophers took out an advertisement in The Minnesota Daily last week looking for a kicker.

Mason issued a statement on Friday reading in part, “In contact sports such as football, Title IX explicitly exempts those sports from having to provide tryouts to female athletes. At this time we thought it was in the team’s best interest to limit the tryout to male participation.”

Three field goals were booted Saturday. Ryan Duffy connected on tries from 32 and 21 yards for the Maroon team while Tom Mollner nailed a 22-yarder for the White team.

Extra Points

ï Captains for this season will be Abdul-Khaliq, Utecht, Eli Ward and Dan Kwapinski.

ï White team running back Brandon Hagen, who did not carry once last season, led all rushers with 93 yards on 18 carries.

ï Highly touted junior college transfer Paris Hamilton had only one catch, but it drew a chorus of “oos” and “ahhs” from the crowd. He made a diving 33-yard grab that set up one of Duffy’s two field goals.

ï Abdul-Khaliq on Sims’ interception return: “I could have caught him. But, you know, I let him have his moment of glory. His family was here so I let him have it. Next time, I’ll catch him.”

Brian Stensaas welcomes comments at [email protected]