Injuries playing havoc on Gophers passing game

by Brian Hall

After blocking a first quarter punt Saturday, Minnesota’s football team took over offensively at the Ohio State 30-yard line.

Momentum on their side, the Gophers drove to the Buckeye 7-yard line. On third down and goal, quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq looked for his prime target, tight end Ben Utecht.

But Abdul-Khaliq overthrew Utecht, forcing Minnesota to settle for a field goal – their only points of the game.

Heading into Saturday’s game with No. 13 Michigan, Minnesota’s injury-riddled and ineffective offense is searching for answers.

Coach Glen Mason often runs two tight end offenses and the injuries to Utecht and fellow tight end Scooter Baugus have affected what the Gophers can do in the passing game.

“It’s been tough,” Abdul-Khaliq said. “Those are two guys who are a key to this offense that you really need in certain situations. When you don’t have those guys, it limits you and the defense can do things they couldn’t do if you had those guys.”

Added Mason: “Tight end is a position we thought we were going to be solid, and then all of a sudden your top two guys are on the shelf.”

Utecht is the Gophers’ leading receiver, totaling 25 catches, amassing 324 yards and five touchdowns. But his appearance in practice has been sporadic since his injury at Purdue on Sept. 28.

Before his trip to West Lafayette, Utecht averaged four catches and 51.6 yards per game with five touchdowns. Since then, he has totaled five catches for 66 yards and no touchdowns. Against Ohio State last weekend, Utecht was held without a catch for the first time in 10 games.

“I can’t remember the last time Ben Utecht has practiced,” Mason said. “We are always trying to get him healthy to play in the game. We never get him 100 percent healthy and it affects his play in the game. You take a guy who is a really good player and he becomes just a guy. It has hurt him and hurt us.”

Baugus tore the posterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in the game against Michigan State, basically the same injury he sustained two years ago in his left knee.

“We definitely thought me and Utecht would help the team out a little bit more in certain situations in the passing game,” Baugus said. “And there are certain run plays we can’t do now because we are not agile enough. Utecht is kind of day-to-day.

“Me, I have two shot knees and it is hard for me to run, especially with two knee braces on. I am probably at 40 percent with my mobility right now.”

Meanwhile, Abdul-Khaliq, who said his ankle is about 85 percent healed, ran for 207 yards in the first five games before suffering an ankle injury against the Boilermakers. Since then, he has rushed for 13 yards in three games, including -15 yards against the Buckeyes. His pass efficiency rating has dropped more than 50 points to a season-low 133.37.

Michigan State misery

michigan State’s first-year athletic director Ron Mason fired football coach Bobby Williams on Monday night, amid two off-field meltdowns and a four-game losing streak. Offensive coordinator Morris Watts will take over as interim head coach but said he has no intention of applying for the permanent position.

Williams, who was one of four black head coaches out of 117 Division I football schools, was 16-17 since taking over as head coach in Dec. 1999.

“We have a lot of men that have been stunned; (Williams) was the gentleman who basically recruited them and has been their leader,” Watts said. “This morning we have come in with some renewed vigor that we will address the thing the right way and play a very good game on Saturday.”

Williams’ dismissal comes on the heels of the school’s worst loss in 55 years, a 49-3 dismantling by Michigan, and off-field problems with two of the team’s captains.

Running back Dawan Moss was dismissed from the team after he was arrested and accused of dragging a police officer with his car following a traffic stop on Sunday night.

Also on Sunday, quarterback Jeff Smoker, who had been suspended for a violation of team rules, admitted himself into a substance abuse program, his family announced.

Meanwhile, defensive end Greg Taplin was suspended Thursday for an unspecified team violation and two other players have quit voluntarily.

Wisconsin woes

the Spartans aren’t the only team suffering from off-field issues.

Wisconsin star running back Anthony Davis was stabbed in the left leg on Sunday morning in a domestic dispute.

Davis was stabbed by his ex-girlfriend after he apparently told her he wanted to break off their relationship.

The half-inch puncture was to the middle of his left thigh and nearly hit an artery. Madison police arrested and booked Tiffany L. Spears, 22, at the scene and the case is under investigation.

Davis leads the Badgers with 1,001 rushing yards and six touchdowns. Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez said Tuesday that Davis’ availability is still to be determined.

Meanwhile, receiver Lee Evans, who is sitting out this season with a knee injury, was arrested in Iowa County on a misdemeanor marijuana possession charge. Evans, who was driving to Iowa City, Iowa, for Saturday’s game, posted a $100 bond and was released.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.