Minnesota’s running game is a triple threat and then some

Brett Angel

Tulsa head football coach Steve Kragthorpe was fortunate enough to have a front-row seat for the rushing exhibition put on by Minnesota on Saturday night at the Metrodome.

Although Kragthorpe probably would have enjoyed the show more standing on the opposite sideline, it was a performance he quickly discovered was as good as advertised.

Sparked by three touchdowns from a healthy Marion Barber III, the Gophers racked up 254 rushing yards against Tulsa, 172 in the first half alone.

“They power-run the football at you and take shots down the field,” Kragthorpe said of Minnesota’s offensive attack. “All the preseason things that people were talking about – I can see them happening.”

It’s no coincidence the running game gets mentioned first when talking about the Gophers’ offense.

Nearly two-thirds of Minnesota’s 75 offensive snaps against Tulsa were running plays. It’s a luxury Minnesota coach Glen Mason has, thanks to finally having all three of his top running backs healthy at once.

Barber showed no signs of the nagging hamstring injury that kept him out of all but two games last year. And there’s no reason to think he won’t return to the form he showed as a true freshman in 2001, when his 6.3 yards per carry ranked second in the Big Ten.

Despite finding the end zone three times Saturday on just eight carries, Barber deflected much of the praise toward his offensive line.

“The line was exceptional,” Barber said. “I felt fine, but when the holes look like that anybody could run through them.”

The “O” line wasn’t blocking on special teams though, where Barber returned kickoffs and punts during the first half. He finished the game with 137 yards of total offense.

“Barber is back,” Mason said. “I think everybody would have to agree he’s better than we remembered a couple years ago.”

But the sophomore is just one facet of a deep Minnesota rushing attack that looked sharp from every angle in its first audition of 2003.

Senior tailback Thomas Tapeh bruised his way to 75 yards on 16 carries, often making the extra effort to stay inbounds and lay a hit on Tulsa defensive backs. Junior Terry Jackson II added 59 yards and a touchdown.

As a group, Barber, Tapeh and Jackson gained 182 yards on the ground and averaged 5.7 yards per carry.

“I think we’ve shown if we give our running backs room, they’re pretty dangerous in a lot of different capacities,” Mason said.

No one questions the ability of any back in the Gophers’ talented trio; rather, it was the dilemma of finding enough plays on the field for each that bothered Mason most.

“I had to handle all these questions about if we’d be able to get three backs in the game,” Mason said. “Well, we got four backs in the game. We’re going to play them all.”

The fourth back to get into the game was freshman Laurence Maroney, who has turned as many heads in practice for his muscular physique as his running.

Maroney gained 43 yards on 10 carries Saturday. He burst up the middle for an apparent 41-yard touchdown on his first carry of the game early in the third quarter, but the score was nullified when the Gophers were flagged for holding.

Still, things were going so well for Minnesota’s running game that even freshman fullback Jason Lamers got in on the fun with a 15-yard fourth quarter scamper on his 20th birthday.

Mason denied having any strategy as to how each running back will be used, but it helps that all members of the Gophers’ backfield appear to share a team-first attitude.

“We don’t even worry about carries, it’s all about the team,” Jackson said. “We set this mindset in spring that we want to win a Big Ten title and go to the Rose Bowl.

“We can’t do it individually, so we’ve been working hard trying to work together and be a cohesive group.”

Saturday night, that group took a very impressive first step.