Gophers draw tough test in Toledo in season opener

The Minnesota Gophers open their 2004 football season versus Toledo at the Metrodome. The Rockets are coming off an 8-4 season that saw them finish second in the Mid-American Conference West Division by one game behind Bowling Green, who they lost to 31-23 in the season finale. Gopher fans are familiar with Toledo as the two teams have met two times in the past three years.

Toledo embarrassed Minnesota 38-7 as Chester Taylor scored four touchdowns and rushed for 186 yards on 18 carries in a 38-7 rout of Minnesota in the season opener in 2001. The game signaled the debut of head coach Tom Amstutz, who replaced highly successful Gary Pinkel, who took the Missouri job. The Rockets jumped out to a 31-0 lead and rushed for 363 yards. They had two running backs who went over 100 yards in the win.

 

Gophers got a modicum of revenge in 2002 when they defeated the Rockets 31-21 at home. However, Toledo did lead 7–0 and 14-7 before the Gophers tied the score at halftime 14-14. The score was knotted at 21-21 before the Gophers scored the final 10 points of the game. Toledo gained more yards (428 to 373) and had more first downs (22 to 18). The Rockets rushed for 233 yards on 39 carries.

 

This year's Rocket team will feature a little different look than the previous Toledo squads Gopher fans have seen in the past as they have shifted to a fast-paced, no-huddle passing game. The Rockets have become more of an aerial team as they are led by junior quarterback Bruce Gradowski, who completed 71.2% of his passes, a MAC record and the second-best mark in the nation. The Rockets had their first 100-reception season (Lance Moore, the nation's leader with 103 receptions) and averaged 278.2 yards passing per game, another school record.

 

Toledo has its five leading receivers back, including Moore and tight end Andrew Clarke, both first-team All-MAC picks in 2003. Clarke caught 35 passes and scored eight touchdowns on his way to a first-team All-MAC season. Clarke has an ideal blend of size (6-4, 249), speed and sticky hands that have him mentioned as one of the top tight ends in the country. Athlon magazine named him preseason third-team All-America, while NFL draft guru Mel Kiper, Jr. has said he has the potential to be the top tight end taken in the 2005 draft.

 

They are not the only standout pass catchers in the Rockets' three-receiver offense. Sophomore Steve Odom caught 62 passes and missed being named MAC Freshman of the Year by one vote. Moore and Odom are joined in the starting lineup by senior Terrance Hudson, who caught 27 passes in 2003.

 

All-MAC offensive tackle Nick Kaczur, arguably the best offensive lineman in the MAC, will be attempting to become the first Rocket ever to earn All-MAC honors in four consecutive seasons. He has already accepted an invitation to the 2005 East-West Shrine Game, and has a legitimate chance to become Toledo's first All-American since Chester Taylor in 2001. Kaczur is one of two returning offensive line starters.

 

Toledo plays a 4-2-5 defense and returns five starters, including four secondary starters. Senior free safety Patrick Body leads the defensive backs. Body was third on the team with 77 tackles and also picked off three passes. Body has been timed at 4.25 in the 40-yard dash.

 

Inside linebacker Anthony Jordan finished fifth in the MAC with 138 tackles last year.

 

The Rockets lost all four defensive line starters for the second time in three years, which could leave them vulnerable against a talented Gopher ground game.

 

Toledo ranked third in the nation in net punt returns (16.1 yards per return) and fifth in net punt coverage (40.7 yards per punt) last season. Lance Moore averaged 12.9 yards per punt return (15th best in the nation) and took one return back for a touchdown. He also ranked third in the MAC by averaging 21.7 yards per kickoff return. At placekicker, junior Jason Robbins is back for his third season. Robbins kicked three field goals and was 48-50 in extra points last year. Junior Jason Cox is an experienced punter but he will have to battle true freshman Brett Kern for the job.

 

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