Football sticks with what works

Brett Angel

All week, Minnesota football players and coaches hinted there would be more to see from the Gophers’ offense in Saturday’s game against Penn State. This was supposed to be the game when coach Glen Mason turned over a new page in the playbook, employed new formations and threw the opposing defense a curveball.

Instead, what the Gophers did Saturday against the Lions was the equivalent of grooving a fastball down the middle of the plate – they did exactly what was expected.

Yes, there were new formations, some new personnel and even some trick plays. But it was all done with the same simple strategy in mind: running the football.

The Gophers used the same run-heavy game plan they had throughout their non-conference schedule, running 52 times against a soft Lions front seven. The result was everything Mason could have hoped for as Minnesota gained 250 rushing yards and its fifth-straight win to open the 2003 season.

“They weren’t showing great run-stopping defense throughout their other games and we wanted to stay with what was working,” Minnesota quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq said.

Judging by the numbers, Minnesota’s success on the ground

Saturday should have been no surprise. Penn State’s defense surrendered a conference-worst average of 204 yards rushing to its first four opponents. The Gophers averaged nearly 293 rushing yards in their first four games.

Minnesota wasted no time exploiting what it considered the Lions’ most glaring weakness. After faking a reverse and throwing deep on their first offensive snap, the Gophers committed themselves to a ground attack that gained 105 yards and two touchdowns in the opening quarter.

As a team, Minnesota averaged better than 6.5 yards per rush in the first quarter as both Marion Barber III (134 yards) and Laurence Maroney (46) found the end zone against a defense that allowed just one touchdown in the previous 11 quarters.

Maroney’s score capped a 99-yard drive on which nine of the 12 plays were runs. It was a drive that began with Minnesota simply trying to move out of the shadow of its own end zone and turned into a game-changing possession.

“We were really thinking about getting our team better field position,” Abdul-Khaliq said. “We had to get the ball off the line so we could have some room to move. It was a great drive and just shows the character of our team.”

The running game was quieted in the middle two quarters as Penn State backup quarterback Michael Robinson and the Lions fought their way back into the game, jump-started by their own running game.

But after safety Justin Fraley intercepted a Robinson pass with 8:38 remaining in the fourth quarter and Minnesota clinging to a three-point lead, the Gophers again went to their ground game when it mattered most.

Minnesota ran the ball 10 straight times after the turnover, moving from their own 36-yard line to the Penn State 9 before a sack forced a 30-yard Rhys Lloyd field goal.

The drive extended the Gophers’ lead to 20-14, but more importantly took six minutes and 17 seconds off the clock and gave the Minnesota defense a much-needed rest.

“My legs still aren’t back,” linebacker Ben West said when asked how badly the defense needed a rest at that point. “Everyone on the defense was sitting there (thinking) run the ball, run the ball and milk that clock.”

At this point, it appears, Minnesota has less of a problem getting yards than it does getting enough carries for its talented pool of running backs. Even with 52 team rushes, Thomas Tapeh had only five carries and Terry Jackson II, who led the team in rushing in 2002 wasn’t even mentioned in the participation report.

“If I could start them all I would,” Mason said. “I’ve got some good football players and we’re going to try to utilize them. It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it.”

Still, Mason knows it’s the best of problems to have.