The Gophers put up gaudy numbers on offense, have shown improvement on defense and have been labeled as one of the best teams in the Big Ten. Yet they know there are a lot of skeptics.
Minnesota is 4-0 and figures to remain undefeated when it plays host to troubled Penn State this week. However, a showdown at Michigan looms Oct. 9, and that game will surely be the measuring stick for the program.
Let's not play the game that coaches and players try to avoid in public — looking ahead to a future opponent. Minnesota should be able to overwhelm Penn State in the Metrodome, especially with the Nittany Lions' QB situation unsettled.
Meanwhile, the Minnesota running attack is among the best in the nation and Gopher QB Bryan Cupito is the second-ranked quarterback in the Big Ten. It should not be close.
But the Gophers cannot get last year's 38-35 loss to Michigan out of their minds. In that game, the Gophers had a 21-point lead in the fourth quarter and still let it get away. Much of that was on the defense.
That unit showed significant improvement in the Big Ten opener against Northwestern. The Gophers gave up just 267 yards, stopped Northwestern on three consecutive three-and-outs in the first half and held Northwestern QB Brett Basanez to 121 yards through the air.
"I think we made noticeable improvement," coach Glen Mason told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "We've given up some yardage, but against the score we've been pretty good."
The Gophers are allowing 18.8 ppg, a figure that ranks fifth in the Big Ten. Even with the good showing against Northwestern, they are allowing 277.2 yards per game through the air — the ninth-best mark in the conference. That does not bother defensive coordinator Greg Hudson, who simply asks his defensive players not to let receivers get behind them.
"We're going to keep the ball in front of us," Hudson said. "We're going to play unselfish defense, and we're going to be opportunistic when the time comes."
The time will come a week from Saturday when Minnesota goes to Michigan. They should be able to handle Penn State's beleaguered offense this week without a problem.
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: This is a team that can move the ball any way it wants. The running attack of Laurence Maroney and Marion Barber is dominant. The Gophers run for 332.2 yards per game, which leads the Big Ten and ranks fourth nationally. The passing game is also dangerous with QB Bryan Cupito ranking just behind Purdue QB Kyle Orton among Big Ten quarterbacks.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The Gophers are picking up the pace and are coming off their best performance of the year. They held Northwestern to one offensive touchdown and limited the Wildcats to 267 total yards. Defensive coordinator Greg Hudson has his pass defense playing a bend-but-don't-break philosophy.
QUOTE TO NOTE: If I had been on top of my game, I would have called a timeout. That would have given the guy a chance to get his hot dog and look at the [replay]. I'll keep my mouth shut." — Minnesota head coach Glen Mason on the 15-yard TD run by Northwestern QB Brett Basanez in the Sept. 25 game. Basanez appeared to fumble well before reaching the goal line, but the play was not reviewed.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Penn State at Minnesota, Oct. 2 — The Nittany Lions were outmuscled and outfought in their loss at Wisconsin last week. The Badgers knocked out QBs Zack Mills (shoulder) and Michael Robinson (concussion) and Penn State was left with a pedestrian offense. Mills should be back for the Nittany Lions, but they don't appear to have the weapons to trade punches with Minnesota. One area of concern for the Gophers is special teams. Northwestern's Jeff Backes returned a kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown in the first half and the ease with which he did it indicates that Minnesota is vulnerable.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: QB Bryan Cupito — With each game he plays, Cupito gets better and takes a firmer leadership role. Cupito is throwing the ball well — having completed 32-of-55 passes for 627 yards with five touchdowns — and is growing in stature each week.
LB Terrance Campbell — He checks in at 6-2 and 200 pounds, but Campbell makes up in skill and speed what he lacks in bulk. Campbell had a key second-quarter interception that set up a touchdown for Minnesota in its Sept. 25 game vs. Northwestern and should be an impact player the rest of the season.
ROSTER REPORT: The Gophers are relatively healthy going into their game with Penn State.
Hard Not To Look Ahead
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