Maroney shows Illini coaches what they missed

The Illini passed on offering Laurence Maroney a scholarship. He responded with 179 yards against them.

Brett Angel

Smiles abounded in the visitors’ locker room of Memorial Stadium on Saturday afternoon as Minnesota football players congratulated each other on a much-needed 36-10 victory over Illinois.

But there was one player in particular whose smile shone a little bit brighter than most.

Freshman running back Laurence Maroney crashed Illinois’ homecoming party and turned the game into his own personal homecoming celebration with a breakthrough performance.

Playing in front of 30 to 40 friends and family members who made the 180-mile trip from his hometown of St. Louis, Maroney had by far the best game of his brief collegiate career.

He finished the game with a personal best 179-yards rushing and two touchdowns on 22 carries.

“I just wanted to give them a show to prove I can do this against a Big Ten team,” said Maroney, who also had an 89-yard run called back because of a holding penalty.

While Maroney acknowledged having so many familiar faces in the crowd served as extra motivation, the spectator he was trying to impress most stood on the opposing sideline.

llinois coach Ron Turner and the Illini staff passed on Maroney during last year’s recruiting period, opening the door for Minnesota – his other top choice – to employ his services.

Maroney actually visited Champaign first, where Illinois coaches told him they were interested but had only two scholarships available for freshman running backs.

While Maroney contemplated his decision during a visit to Minnesota, he was informed by Illinois special teams coach Greg McMahon that Pierre Thomas had formally committed to Illinois and the school’s scholarship offer to Maroney was no longer on the table.

That made Maroney’s decision to attend Minnesota an easy one. It also made Saturday’s trip back to Champaign especially meaningful.

“We definitely wanted to utilize Laurence,” running backs coach Vic Adamle said. “He was ready for a big game, and plus he had the extra motivation.

“You want to use him just because you know how hyped he is for the game, and that should pay off from a results standpoint.”

Giving Maroney an extended role in the offense paid immediate dividends for the Gophers while Illinois paid the price for passing him up with its seventh straight loss.

In an ironic twist of fate, Thomas started at running back for the Illini in place of injured starter E.B. Halsey.

Thomas finished with a respectable 70 yards on 15 carries but his numbers paled in comparison to Maroney’s.

“He once again proved that he’s a great running back and he’s going to be a great running back,” Minnesota quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq said. “I don’t know what everybody expected, I mean, he’s been looking good all season.”

Through the first eight games of 2003, Maroney rushed for 443 yards and five touchdowns. But Saturday’s game against Illinois meant more personally than all of them.

And he made sure his teammates knew it.

“He’s been talking about it all week; actually we’re a little tired of him talking about it,” Abdul-Khaliq said with a laugh. “But we all knew how important this game was for him.”

After the numbers Maroney put up on Saturday, he’s earned the right to talk.