Gophers respect Ducks' interior

Oregon says the Gophers bring the best rushing attack the Ducks have seen this year with Marion Barber III and Laurence Maroney. However, the Gophers are lobbing the compliments back on Oregon's defensive tackles.

The Gophers are very confident about their running game, but Sun Bowl opponent Oregon counters with an impressive run defense and will not just roll over for Marion Barber and Laurence Maroney.

The numbers speak for themselves.

The Ducks give up just 95.9 yards per game on the ground and allowed only two runners to gain 100 or more yards during the season. Perhaps their most impressive performance was holding Michigan RB Chris Perry to 26 yards in Oregon's Sept. 20 upset over the Wolverines.

"They're very dominant inside," Minnesota coach Glen Mason told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "I think they're reminiscent of Wisconsin. We have our work cut out for us."

The Ducks always emphasize stopping the run, often devoting extra personnel and playing man-to-man coverage. Minnesota won't be deterred, however. Both Barber and Maroney combine power with speed, although Maroney seems a tad faster. The breakaway threat is always present as long as one of those two backs is in the lineup.

"They bring a unique approach to the table in that they are the best running team we will have played, maybe in many years," said Oregon coach Mike Belotti. "I don't think there is anyone in our conference [Pac-10] that has been that focused."

Both teams will be facing challenges to their main strengths. The team that wins that challenge will have a leg up on winning the Sun Bowl.

SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: The Gophers are saying and doing all the right things about respecting Oregon's fine defense. But make no mistake about it: Minnesota is confident in its ability to run the ball and make big plays. QB Asad Abdul-Khaliq is the underrated leader of this team. He threw for 2,229 yards and 17 touchdowns and can make big plays with his feet when necessary. The running game is dominant as Minnesota averages 293.2 yards per game, third-best in the nation.

SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: Minnesota's defense can't be compared with the success it has had on the offensive side. Head coach Glen Mason's defense tries hard and will compete, especially against the run. This unit gave up just 126.5 yards per game on the ground. S Eli Ward is a big hitter who led the team with 68 tackles.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think they're probably the best two inside guys we've faced. We have a real big challenge ahead of us. They're the complete package. They have great size, great strength, great speed and great athleticism." — Gopher center Greg Eslinger on Oregon DTs Igor Olshansky (6-6, 309 pounds) and Junior Siavii (6-5, 330).

THIS WEEK'S GAME: Minnesota vs. Oregon, Sun Bowl, Dec. 31 — If the Ducks get too mesmerized in trying to stop Minnesota's ground game, QB Asad Abdul-Khaliq can make them pay. He has an outstanding target in WR Jared Ellerson, and don't be surprised to see that duo cause major problems for Oregon.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: RB Marion Barber — Barber bounced back from a redshirt season to emerge as the go-to back for most of the season. He combines power and speed and showed that he was the Gophers' best back in a group that included Laurence Maroney, Terry Jackson and Thomas Tapeh.

QB Asad Abdul-Khaliq — One of the most underrated passers in the country. While he does not have classic form throwing the ball, Abdul-Khaliq understands the nuances of the position and is effective. He completed 146-of-229 passes for 2,229 yards with 17 TDs and five interceptions. He also ran for 341 yards and four TDs.

TE Ben Utecht — Has been one of the top TEs in the college game for a couple of years and should be among the top five tight ends taken in this spring's draft.

LB Ben West — He has 86 tackles and three sacks and is extremely athletic. At 6-1 and 240, West has good size for the LB spot and has the potential to get even stronger.

FB Thomas Tapeh — If the pros want a fullback who can accept his role and also handle some turns at tailback, then Tapeh could be the guy.

INJURY IMPACT: TE Ben Utecht has a muscle pull in his stomach, but he should be able to line up against Oregon.

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