Aug. 31, 2005
2004 Record: 7-5 (3-5 Big Ten)
Head Coach: Glen Mason. Record at Minnesota: 51-45 Overall Record: 110-109-1
Starters Returning: Offense 8, Defense 7, Special Teams 1
The bar has been raised.
For the Golden Gophers, the standards for a successful season have been elevated after three consecutive bowl victories, and those high expectations continue as Minnesota prepares for opening day.
Coach Glen Mason has turned around the program with a punishing offense, and prepared them to win all of their first five games in 2004 before a heartbreaking defeat at Michigan snowballed into losing five of the last six games. The Gophers rallied at the end, however to beat Alabama in the 2004 Music City Bowl.
The offense has proved to be one of the most dominant in the Big Ten, boasting the number one rushing game in 2004. Junior running back and Heisman Trophy candidate Laurence Maroney is poised to have a third consectutive 1,000 yard, potential All-America season in Mason's scheme. Another All-American on the offense, Greg Eslinger, should continue his dominance of the center position to help clear the way for his star running back. Eslinger will be joined by some of the conference's best lineman in Joe Ainslie and Mark Setterstorm, who was recently named a preseason All-American by the Sporting News.
On the right side, young linemen Mike Nicholson and Tony Brinkhaus should have solid years and hope to repeat the success of last years line that paved the way for over 3,000 rushing yards while allowing only nine sacks.
In addition to the running game, the Gophers boast a solid corp of receivers who are big, fast, and very capable of making big plays. Senior Jason Ellerson averages over 17 yards per catch in his career, while 6-5 sophomore Ernie Wheelwright averages almost 22 yards per catch. Adding to the mix is 6-6 tight end Matt Spaeth, who earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors after proving to be a great blocker and solid receiver.
According to Mason, "Spaeth is the toughest guy you ever want to find. He doesn't talk tough or act tough, but he's back and he looks like a million bucks, and he'll have an outstanding year for us."
The question marks about the quarterback position should be erased by junior Brian Cupito. A second-year starter, Cupito completed only 47 percent of his passes in 2004, but still threw for over 2,000 yards and 14 touchdowns in doing so. Cupito thrives on exposing defenses that focus too much on the running game, and is more than capable of creating big plays for his receivers.
Of his QB, Mason said, "he's got a year of Big Ten football under his belt and he weathered some good things and bad things. When the dust settled I think he emerged as a more complete quarterback."
Mason liked the look of Cupito during spring practices. "I like the way he approached the offseason, and the way he handles himself. He's going to be a much improved quarterback this year."
In his first year since obtaining the defensive coordinator title, David Lockwood returns seven starters from a team that held Alabama to a mere 21 rushing yards in last year's Music City Bowl. The unit had its problems in the regular season, and hopes the bowl performance is a sign of things to come.
Last year, it was the defensive side of the ball that showed the most room for improvement. "On defense we must improve. We took a step back last year," said Mason. "For us to be able to compete this year in the Big Ten we have to be better and I'm confident that we will be."
Mark Losli, Anthony Montgomery, and Mario Reese will likely return to their starting roles from a year ago, and will be joined by Eric Clark and Keith Lipka, who will be trying to make their impact right away.
Montgomery, a nose tackle, said that "we were definitely able to physically do things that great defenses do, especially on first and second down. But when it came to third down we always had mental errors or little things that ended up leading to an opponent's big play." He continued that Lockwood's smaller playbook will add simplicity to the once complicated game-plan.
Behind the line will be returning starting linebacker Kyle McKenzie, who has seen significant playing time since his freshman year, earning 24 career starts and playing in 36 career games. John Shelvin and Mike Sherels both played very well in the Music City Bowl, and their experience will be key in earning playing time
In the secondary, an interesting mix of players will lead to some creativity for Mason and Lockwood. The unit includes a former walk-on, a couple of former linebackers, a couple of untested sophomores and maybe even a true freshman getting in on the action.
Leading the cornerbacks is junior Trumaine Banks, a two-year starter who had to defend his starting spot against Jamal Harris last fall. Harris and freshman Desi Steib will compete for playing time, though Harris is more experienced, with three starts under his belt.
The most experienced of the unit is free safety John Pawielski, who began his Minnesota career as a walk-on, and has since emerged a key leader in the secondary. Pawielski has the potential for a breakout season, and to be among the top safeties in the conference.
Senior Terrence Campbell will make the move to strong safety this season after being a fixture in the linebacker corps for three years. He and Dominique Barber will most likely be used in backup roles to Brandon Owens, an athletic and talented safety who will have to re-learn the position after playing on the special teams and as a linebacker.
With the pool of talent in the Big Ten this season, Coach Mason knows that he will need more leadership and consistency from his core group of experienced players to be successful. Minnesota opens its season with three winnable non-conference games withTulsa, Colorado State, and Florida Atlantic.
The Gophers then dive headfirst into conference play against Purdue, and traveling to Penn State and Michigan before hosting Wisconsin and Ohio State. A trip to Indiana, followed by a home game against Michigan State and a trip to Iowa close out Minnesota's difficult schedule.
Cupito told members of the media that this was the toughest schedule possible for the Gophers, and that "in the Big Ten this year, there's no going around anyone, but I think we're going to be good. Not many people are talking about us this year the same way as they did last year."
"We play everyone, and I am excited about that opportunity," he said. "We know this year that we have to have our best game every game in order to win."
"I think overall we're a more experienced team, and we'd better be, because the Big Ten has always been competitive in my nine years, but never anything like this," said Mason.
Minnesota will have to battle through its difficult schedule to return to a fifth bowl in six years, but if its true leaders emerge and can carry their teammates on their backs, they have a good chance of accomplishing that or more.