Spring game produces positive outlook

The first-team Maroon offense barely beat the first-team defense, but the Gophers' annual spring game produced plenty of encouraging performances.

The spring game was supposed to help answer some questions on defense, at wide receiver and with the younger players. While many of those areas received positive evaluations, it may have created a good problem at quarterback as well.

Junior college transfer Adam Ernst entered the game as the second-string quarterback and Bryan Cupito as the starter. While junior Cupito didn't make too many mistakes, Ernst led the second-team offense against the second-team defense and showed the arm strength and accuracy to hit on the big play.

Ernst led the White team (the second-team offenses and first-team defense) to two touchdowns and two field goals and hit on a number of big-play passes downfield. Ernst completed nine of 14 passes for 216 yards. Cupito's only touchdown pass was the game-winner for the Maroon team on pass across his body to the middle of the field with 44 seconds remaining. He completed nine of 16 passes for 68 yards.

The Maroon team also got assists from Goldy the mascot when coach Glen Mason inserted him for one offensive play — a predestined touchdown run — and one defensive play, when he ran through the offensive line while it ignored him for a setup sack of Ernst.

While Goldy was intending to put some entertainment into the showcase game, there were legitimate reasons for optimism surrounding the team:

* Senior receiver Paris Hamilton looked sharp and elusive after sitting out last year with an injury.

* Redshirt freshman receiver Micah Rucker turned in a consistently strong performance throughout the contest.

* The defensive secondary showed some improved athleticism in competing for passes, coming down with three interceptions.

* Backup kicker Michael Jacobs was true on field goal attempts of 35 and 46 yards.

* Sophomore running back Laurence Maroney continued to look explosive with a 54-yard touchdown. He finished with eight carries for 65 yards.

* Backup running back Amir Pinnix, another redshirt freshman, looked very strong physically and in his decision-making. He plsit time on both the Maroon and White team, due to Barber's injury and finished with 17 carries for 74 yards and one score.

The only scare during the game was junior running back Marion Barber getting up slowly after what looked to be a hyper-extension of his knee. He had three carries for 21 yards.

The game started slowly, but improved in flow and legitimacy after the Goldy episodes.

With Maroon and White both moving the ball without too much resistance but failing to score on their first drives, Mason inserted Goldy as the deep back in the I-formation. Goldy accepted the pitch from Cupito, faked the reverse and jogged down the sideline, avoiding feigned tackle attempts for a 53-yard touchdown.

The White answered with a legitimate touchdown drive, one of the quick-strike variety. On the second play of the drive, second-string quarterback Adam Ernst connected on a 46-yard bomb to sophomore receiver Mark Jundt across midfield to the 20-yard line. On the next play, Ernst pump faked to Rucker, then hit him on a fade for an easy TD with twelve seconds left in the opening quarter.

Maroon struggled to move the ball in the second quarter, but after one series with true freshman QB John Carlson running White, Ernst was re-inserted after a series and continued to move White's offense. He made it look easy at times against the first-team defense, starting his third series with a 26-yard sideline pass to Rucker. After converting a third down with a naked bootleg for 1 yard, Ernst hit Hamilton on a quick slant. Hamilton showed his elusiveness through traffic, gaining 18 yards as he shimmied to the 1-yard line. Pinnix, who had been looking sharp and carrying the load for White, capped the drive with a 2yard dive for a 14-7 lead with 22 seconds left in the half.

While Ernst looked sharp in the first half, he opened the second half by throwing an interception.

Maroon took advantage on the fourth play of its ensuing drive. On second down, Maroney ducked behind a blocker at the line of scrimmage, then made his cut and exploded through the defense for a 54-yard touchdown to tie the game at 14-14 with 5:20 in the third quarter.

Ernst didn't let the previous interception shackle his remaining series. He found Jundt again for a 20-yard gain, and Pinnix picked up another first down before the drive stalled and White settled for a field goal and a 17-14 lead.

After Barber's injury, which appeared minor, ended the Maroon's drive, Carlson was inserted back into the lineup for another series and found Rucker for a big gain to the 7-yard line, but a drop pass in the end zone and three rushing plays failed to get the ball across the goal line.

Cupito followed with an interception by junior safety John Pawielski, setting up a 46-yard field by Michael Jacobs for White, giving it a 20-14 lead with 4:54 left in the contest.

Cupito recovered from his interception throw to lead Maroon on an 11-play, 60-yard touchdown drive. Receiver Jared Ellerson started the drive with two receptions, but Pinnix did much of the rest, moving the ball from the 30-yard line to the 2-yard line on four carries before Cupito's game-winning pass to running back Justin Valentine. Cupito felt pressure on fourth down, scrambled to his right, stopped just before the sideline and threw across his body to the middle of the end zone for Valentine to give Maroon a 21-20 win with 44 seconds left.

It capped a short, intriguing contest that capped productive spring practice sessions. When the team convenes for organized practices again in four month, it can do so knowing that they may be in a strong position to contend for the Big Ten title again this year with improved depth and returning stars.

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