Season of highs, lows for U football

by Murali Balaji

It would be a gross understatement to point out that the Minnesota football team’s .500 record heading into the final stretch of the season is surprising.
After a 56-21 destruction at the hands of Purdue in their Big Ten opener, the Gophers have stayed very competitive — with the exception of an expected blowout loss against Ohio State — with their conference opponents.
The team’s confidence level is obviously building with each game, and despite continuing ineptitude and ineffectiveness on offense, the team manages to keep up with their opponents thanks to solid defense and special teams.
The following is a look at some of the team’s bright spots, as well as the areas where noticeable improvement is needed if the Gophers wish to climb the conference ladder.
Bright Spots
ù Attitude. It’s the name of the game, and Mason has his troops inspired to play 60 minutes of football.
What the Gophers lack in overall speed, size and talent, they compensate with a fiery attitude. This is a fairly recent phenomenon, however. A more confident level of play seemed to develop after the team hung tough against Penn State, and even a monster effort could not slow down the Ohio State locomotive.
ù Chemistry. Williams and running back Thomas Hamner indicated that the team’s recent surge in confidence and competitiveness has been due to more cohesiveness as a unit.
The defense, as exhibited in their effort against Michigan, is finally coming around to playing defensive coordinator David Gibbs’ attacking schemes.
“You can feel that more guys are enjoying what we’re doing,” linebacker Parc Williams said. “We’re coming together.”
ù Luke Leverson. Leverson is garnering respect from all over the Big Ten with his outstanding all-around play. “He’s a home run threat and a guy who can do a lot of things,” Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez said. Leverson’s biggest asset is his knowledge of the system and his ability to follow routes.
ù Tyrone Carter. Carter receives all the accolades, and deservedly so. He plays with reckless abandon, but is also a heady player who covers his area of the field very well. His style of play makes him an extra linebacker in Gibbs’ schemes, and his on-field leadership is something that can’t be underrated.
ù The linebackers. Minnesota’s linebackers (and Carter) are the focal point of the defense, and their ability to stuff the run and rush the passer is what makes the rest of the unit go. Sean Hoffman, Parc Williams and Ben Mezera are not very athletic, but they possess outstanding range and field instincts.
Low Spots
ù Pass defense. It has now become a recurring theme that an opposing quarterback and receiver tandem has its best game against the Gophers. The defensive backs as a unit are not very big or fast, and are still learning to play with each other. The secondary will continue to be harassed and exploited in the man-to-man defensive schemes.
ù Quarterback. Is it Billy Cockerham or Andy Persby? Either way, the quarterback spot remains the team’s most unstable position. Minnesota’s lack of cohesiveness on offense can be partly attributed to their constant adjusting and re-adjusting to different starters at the helm. Much of the Gophers’ future success depends on their ability to develop one of the two, or just bring in a more talented player at the position.
ù Inconsistent running game. Hamner remains the No. 1 back, but he’s hardly a workhorse-type. The inability of backups Byron Evans and Arland Bruce (who is seeing time at receiver) to provide a consistent spark off the bench has the rushing attack quagmired at eighth in the Big Ten.
ù Offensive line. The line is young, and their continued struggles have compounded the offense’s overall inability to move the ball. While center Ben Hamilton may be one of the conference’s finest, first-year starters such as Adam Haayer, Erik Larson and Ryan Roth are still developing.
The line’s lack of cohesiveness has factored into the team’s meager rushing output, as well as their inability to consistently protect the passer, but don’t expect things to get better this season. This unit will need more time and patience to develop into a solid offensive front.
ù Defensive scheme. The Gophers’ failure to stop the passing game has a lot to do with Gibbs’ unwillingness to go away from the schemes. Mason has been more vocal on his team’s defensive stubbornness.
“We live by the sword, we die by the sword,” he said. The fact is that the team has been killed this season by the pass too many times to ignore.