Minnesota offense as advertised in first four games of Big Ten championship campaign

Ben Goessling

Four games into a season that many expect to lead Minnesota’s football team to the Rose Bowl, the Gophers offense is running about as smoothly as it possibly could.

After a splashy debut against Toledo and a shaky attempt to replicate that performance against Illinois State, the Gophers showed no signs of a dent in the armor against Colorado State and Northwestern.

And the unit isn’t shooting itself in the foot either. It’s only been charged with 10 penalties and has turned the ball over just once.

With four of their next six games on the road, the Gophers are following their offensive script to perfection – almost.

Cupito on target so far

Cupito turned more heads than former Gov. Jesse Ventura’s new hairdo when he opened the season with a 10-for-12, 279-yard performance against Toledo.

The Cincinnati, Ohio, native threw for 206 yards in the first quarter of that game and hit five passes of 30 yards or longer, but he misfired on several deep balls the next week in a 37-21 win over Illinois State.

In the Gophers’ last two games against Colorado State and Northwestern, Cupito has showed signs of maturing into exactly what Minnesota thought it would get: a steady signal-caller with a deft touch and calm demeanor in the huddle.

He went 12-for-21 in each game, throwing for 10 first downs against the Wildcats, and he still hasn’t been intercepted.

“He’s progressed to the point where he knows, and we know, that it’s his offense, and we’re just there to carry it out,” guard Brandon Harston said.

Cupito hit eight different receivers for 155 yards and two scores Saturday, throwing short hitch and out routes almost exclusively. But as the case has been all year, he hasn’t been afraid to go over the top either.

Cupito hit Paris Hamilton for a 50-yard score in the second quarter Saturday. It was his third touchdown pass of 40 yards or more.

RBs hitting ‘home runs’

Coach Glen Mason has talked at length about the number of “home runs” the Gophers are getting this year, and that is in no small part because of Marion Barber III and Laurence Maroney. Minnesota has six plays of 50 yards or longer – or as many as it had all of last year – and three of those are touchdown runs.

Maroney and Barber are 10th and 11th in the nation in rushing, respectively, helping Minnesota to the No. 4 rushing attack.

Additionally, Justin Valentine has stepped smoothly into the fullback role vacated by Thomas Tapeh last year. He’s responsible for the only Gophers turnover – a goal-line fumble against Illinois State, but he has scored five touchdowns, including three Saturday and added a form of versatility Tapeh never had.

“He’s a totally different fullback. Tapeh was a power guy, but J.V. you can use anywhere,” Maroney said. “He can catch the ball, and he takes a lot of pressure off the running game.”

Receivers in progress

If there’s a weak link in the Gophers’ offense, it’s here. The group started with a bang, catching eight of Cupito’s 10 completions in both of the first two games. But the group has accounted for only 12 catches in the last two games.

At least part of the decline in receptions is because of the emergence of tight end, Matt Spaeth, who caught six balls for 76 yards and two scores against Colorado State. He followed with a five-catch, 72-yard performance Saturday.

The 6-foot-6-inch Spaeth has shown an ability to get open in zone coverage, providing Cupito a dependable option on rollouts and play action.

“I don’t think anybody’s keyed on him. We don’t throw the ball enough for people to do that,” Mason said last week. “In our three-step game, our drop-back game, if the defense isn’t there, that’s where we’ll throw the ball.”

The driving force

Despite being the group that gets the least credit, the offensive line is perhaps the focal point of the Minnesota offense.

Several publications rate the Gophers’ unit as among the three best in the country, and aside from three first-quarter false starts and a touchdown-nullifying holding call against Illinois State, the line hasn’t done anything to disprove that theory.

Cupito has been sacked just once, and the Gophers’ between-the-tackles run game, with center Greg Eslinger or left guard Mark Setterstrom pulling, has been nearly unstoppable.

“We go into games with ball control and big plays on our mind,” Harston said. “We just want to dominate the whole game.”