It’s beginning to look a lot like last year for football

by Michael Dougherty

If anyone could have predicted the Gophers football team (3-0) would have three times as many wins as the Vikings (1-2) heading into October, they could probably find employment with the Psychic Friends Network.
But last year the Gophers were 3-0 heading into the Big Ten season, before finishing 5-6. And for the second-straight year the Gophers are heading into the Big Ten opener coming off a bye week.
Last year Minnesota beat Arkansas State, Houston and Memphis before heading to Purdue for the conference kickoff.
Hopes were high, and talk of a bowl game surrounded coach Glen Mason’s squad. But the Boilermakers and quarterback Drew Brees throttled the Gophers 56-21.
This year, Minnesota travels to Evanston, Ill., to face Northwestern (2-2, 0-1 in the Big Ten).
Usually an extra week of preparation for an opponent would be advantageous, but Mason said it obviously wasn’t so last year. Consequently, he said the bye week itinerary this year “will be completely different than what we did last year before Purdue.”
Like Minnesota last year, the Wildcats opened conference play at Purdue and lost. Although they hung around with the 10th-ranked Boilermakers, they lost 31-23.
“They really had a good performance against a good, strong Purdue team last week,” Mason said of Northwestern.
Mason and his team watched the game Saturday and have since studied the film. Mason said he would’ve like to go to West Lafayette to watch the game in person, but NCAA rules prevent that.
He said the Wildcats run a basic two-back offense that is “very sound.”
“They play old-time physical Big Ten football,” Mason said. “They are without a doubt, the toughest competition to date.”
Minnesota Wildcats
Northwestern has four Minnesotans on its roster. Senior linebacker Conrad Emmerich is from Foley, and Wildcats coach Randy Walker called him the “key to our defense.”
Freshman linebacker Regis Eller played at Breck High School and is the son of former Viking and Gopher Carl Eller. The younger Eller has played sparingly on defense and special teams. Walker said Eller is still “getting his feet wet.”
Defensive tackle Javier Collins, a senior from St. Thomas Academy, is in what Walker called a “make or break season.”
He started the last five games of the 1998 season and Walker said he was a key in the Wildcats 15-12 overtime win at Duke.
The final member of the Minnesota quartet is freshman running back Louis Ayeni from Woodbury. Ayeni has rushed only eight times for 20 yards while backing up starting tailback Damien Anderson. He is also the Wildcats’ top kick returner.
Ayeni, along with current Minnesota running back Thomas Tapeh, were the top two high school backs in Minnesota last year, and Ayeni expressed strong interest in playing for the Gophers. At the time, Mason and his staff were committed to recruiting Tapeh and did not offer Ayeni a scholarship.
Spurned, Ayeni accepted Northwestern’s scholarship offer and Mason said he wishes things were different.
“We took a long, hard look at him,” Mason said of Ayeni. “Those are the tough decisions we have to make, and from the moment you make that decision you start second-guessing yourself.”
– Mason said starting cornerback Willie Middlebrooks pulled his right hamstring in a noncontact drill during practice last Thursday. Both Mason and Middlebrooks said the injury will not keep the sophomore out of Saturday’s game.
– Defensive tackle Jon Michals will make his return to the starting lineup on Saturday. Michals has been out since injuring his back before fall practice.
– Mason had all four wisdom teeth pulled last Friday. He said the surgery was a success, and he was able to ride his Harley on Saturday.
Michael Dougherty covers football and welcomes comments at [email protected]