True freshman running back Laurence Maroney was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year on both teams…
Who are these Gophers?
Not only do they have a punishing running game — 293.2 yards per game to lead the Big Ten — they also throw it extremely well.
That might surprise a lot of observers who look at QB Asad Abdul Khaliq and see a scatter-armed thrower and not a polished quarterback. But take another look. Abdul-Khaliq is an accomplished leader and passer who has gotten better every season.
He was at his best this year, when he completed 146-of-229 passes for 2,229 yards with 17 touchdowns and five interceptions. His ability to keep interceptions to a minimum gave head coach Glen Mason tremendous confidence in him and that allowed Abdul-Khaliq the opportunity to throw the ball downfield.
He developed a great rapport with speedy WR Jared Ellerson and the pair became extremely dangerous. Ellerson caught 44 passes for 909 yards with five TDs. His 20.7-yard per catch average is the highest among Big Ten receiving leaders.
This is not to suggest that the Gophers are a pass-oriented team. They are led by RBs Marion Barber (1,159 yards and 17 TDs) and Laurence Maroney (990 yards and nine TDs). However, Abdul-Khaliq's accuracy and arm strength keeps opponents from putting eight men in the box ... and that's one of the main reasons the Gophers are the most explosive team in the conference. Minnesota averages 39.3 ppg — 2.1 ppg better than Michigan.
Look for Minnesota to put its offense on display in the Alamo Bowl or the Sun Bowl. A matchup with Oklahoma State in the Alamo Bowl seems like a distinct possibility.
BEST ATTRIBUTE: This is the best running team in the Big Ten by a wide margin. Head coach Glen Mason saw his team lead the conference in the regular season with a mark of 293.2 yards per game, 93 yards better than runner-up Northwestern. Those rushing yards translated into major points, as the Gophers lead the Big Ten in scoring with 39.3 points a game
NEEDS IMPROVEMENT: The defense suffers dramatically in comparison with the offense. The Gophers are pedestrian on this side of the ball, fifth in the conference in pass defense (204.5 yards per game) and sixth in run defense (126.5 yards per game). More than the numbers, the Gophers have been inconsistent in both areas. At times they looked strong, but in losses to Michigan and Michigan State, they were unable to stem the tide when the game was on the line.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "If Glen [Mason] wants to come down here, I would be glad to try and help him in any way I can. I think he has an exciting young team. I don't know if he wants to come here, but as this thing winds down, I'd be willing to help." — Minnesota Vikings owner Red McCombs, a San Antonio native who wields quite a bit of influence in the area, to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The Gophers want to play in the San Antonio-based Alamo Bowl and will most likely take up McCombs on his offer.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
BOWL SCENARIO: The Gophers appear headed for the Alamo Bowl or the Sun Bowl. Athletic director Joel Maturi wants to see his team go to the San Antonio-based Alamo Bowl and is waging a public campaign to get his team the invitation.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: RB Laurence Maroney — Perhaps the most talented of the Gophers' outstanding crew of running backs. Maroney, a freshman, is 10 yards away from reaching the 1,000-yard mark.
QB Asad Abdul-Khaliq — Abdul-Khaliq knows he is directing a run-first offense and he can get the job done on the ground himself. He also is one of the most underrated passers in the country. He takes good care of the ball and finished the regular season with a 17-5 TD-interception ratio.
PRO POTENTIAL: FB Thomas Tapeh — There isn't a lot of call for fullbacks in the NFL any more, but there is some. Tapeh will definitely rate as one of the top five fullbacks in the draft. He is extremely strong and powerful. A workout warrior who can squat nearly three times his 225-pound body weight.
TE Ben Utecht — He's not Jeremy Shockey, but he's a big target — 6-6 and 278 pounds — who can go up the seam and make plays. He is also a very good finesse blocker, but he needs to gain upper-body strength to get the job done at the next level.
INJURY IMPACT: Utecht has a pulled stomach muscle but should be fine by the end of December.
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