Gophers’ young squad set to take on younger ‘Cats

by Brian Hall

Minnesota senior Antoine Burns witnessed the potential early.

During two-a-day practices, he saw a group of young new starters with the talent to help the Gophers win right away, something which doesn’t usually happen in major college football.

Now, after six games, he knows the underclassmen have accepted their roles and believes the youth is ready as Minnesota heads into the tough portion of the 2002 schedule.

“You could kind of see it coming,” Burns said. “The freshman had talent and the sophomores got a lot better over the spring. They are all guys who go hard every time out and they have done exceptional jobs.”

After playing Northwestern on Thursday for Homecoming, the Gophers go on the road for two straight contests, Michigan State and Ohio State, respectively, before entertaining Michigan and surprising Iowa at the Metrodome.

Minnesota finishes its season in Madison against Wisconsin.

According to coach Glen Mason, the Gophers and the Wildcats appear very similar when looking down the depth charts of the two squads, but Burns believes Minnesota has the advantage in experience.

“Of course the experience helps,” Burns said of the Gophers’ sophomores. “But they are all good players, the first and second year guys. They just have to step up now. We need them and we need them to stay productive.”

Offensively, Minnesota (5-1, 1-1 Big Ten) should be able to attack Northwestern’s youth. The Wildcats (2-4, 0-2) enter the contest with the Big Ten’s worst defense. Their ineffectiveness is largely due to starting three freshmen and five sophomores.

Even the team’s top defender, senior linebacker Pat Durr, has possibly been lost for the season with a right knee injury.

“When we stay healthy and things go pretty well, we can have a good club,” Northwestern coach Randy Walker said. “But, if we get a couple of guys nicked up, we become pretty average, pretty quick.”

Meanwhile, the Gophers’ most experience lies on the offensive side of the ball, especially in the “skill” positions.

Quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq is a junior and has started games since his freshman campaign, and top receiver, tight end Ben Utecht, is also a junior.

Minnesota is the fourth-ranked scoring offense in the conference, (32.5 points per game) while the Wildcats have the worst scoring defense, giving up an average of 37.8 points per game.

“They are having some problems defensively and that’s understandable,” Mason said. “You can understand when you have that many new starters or young guys in there. But they are well coached and they are playing hard.”

Northwestern tied for Big Ten championship in 2000 and its sudden decline is an example of the attrition in college football.

The Wildcats have won the conference three times in the last eight years and now find themselves at the bottom of the pack.

Meanwhile, the Gophers were one of four teams with the shot of heading to a bowl game last season for the fourth year in a row.

Minnesota and the Badgers each came up short.

“Everybody is taking their turns around the league,” Walker said. “We are trying to be a more consistent program. We have won three championships in eight years. It’s the other five years we don’t like. We want to even that out and have better success in those years that you don’t win a championship or you’re not a contender.”

While Northwestern doesn’t seem to be evening out their luck anytime soon, the Gophers could take the next step and become bowl- eligible with a Homecoming win.

“Getting there is one thing and staying there is another,” Mason said. “It is really good when you have that natural feeder system – when you have a good freshman class and they don’t get to play until they are juniors. With the way college football is, that is a problem with a lot of people.”

Or more specifically, Minnesota and the Wildcats, but only one team can make a step in the positive direction with a win Thursday.

Brian Hall covers football and welcomes comments at [email protected]