Music City Bowl Pits Teams On Downhill Slides

The Gophers and Crimson Tide each struggled during the second half of the season, and now the two teams will search for that final win of the year on New Year's Eve.

If both teams are at their best, the Music City Bowl between Minnesota and Alabama could be one of the better games of the postseason.

When the Gophers are on top of their game, they have one of the best running attacks in the nation. When the Tide is rolling, its defense may be the best in the nation.

However, neither team finished the season on a great note. The Crimson Tide lost five of eight games after starting the year with three straight wins, while the Gophers closed the year by losing five of six after starting with five straight wins.

The Gophers are trying to clear their heads following a painful second half of the season. The time off should allow Glen Mason to do just that. Minnesota has been off since losing the season finale to Iowa on Nov. 13.

Minnesota has a great 1-2 punch on the ground. RBs Laurence Maroney and Marion Barber have been carrying the team for two seasons.

Maroney gained 1,243 yards in only his second season and is ranked third in the Big Ten, averaging 113 yards per game. Barber, a junior, joined Maroney in the 1,000-yard club for the second consecutive season by rushing for 167 yards against Iowa in the finale, placing him at 1,082 yards. Barber is fourth in the Big Ten in rushing at 98.4 yards per game.

Barber and Maroney became the first duo in NCAA history to each rush for 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons.

"It's an accomplishment for those two guys and our entire line," Mason said. "It's something that has never been done and now set by two of the greatest kids to be around. They have just gotten better and better. What you see is what you get."

Mason will try to get the ground game back on track against an Alabama defense that gives up just 15.4 ppg. If Maroney and Barber cannot exert their will, the Tide could give the Gophers a major problem. Alabama has the No. 2 defense in the country — giving up 235.9 yards per game.


BY THE NUMBERS: 446.3 — That's the Gopher's average yardage per game, with much of that due to the running attack. But QB Bryan Cupito has a couple of good wide receivers in Jared Ellerson and Ernie Wheelwright, who contributed in a big way to that total.

GAME OF THE YEAR: Iowa 29, Minnesota 27 (Nov. 13) — Though they lost their regular-season finale to their rivals, the Gophers appeared to wake up from their second-half slumber. Minnesota trailed 23-10 at the half, but came all the way back and had a chance to win at the end, but PK Rhys Lloyd's 51-yard FG attempt with 28 seconds to play went wide left.

MATCHUP TO WATCH: WR Ernie Wheelwright vs. DB Anthony Madison — While most observers will concentrate on the matchup between the Gopher running backs and the Alabama front seven, Wheelwright and the Gopher passing game could be huge. Wheelwright caught 30 passes for 654 yards and eight touchdowns, while Madison led the Tide with three interceptions and is solid in coverage.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Any time you have another game, especially when things haven't gone exactly the way you want, you anticipate that you would like to do some things — I have a few things in mind." — Minnesota coach Glenn Mason, on how he will prepare his team for the Music City Bowl against Alabama.

BOWL AT A GLANCE: Minnesota vs. Alabama, Music City Bowl, Nashville, Dec. 31.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: RBs Laurence Maroney and Marion Barber — The Gophers run the football extremely well, thanks to this duo and an outstanding offensive line led by C Greg Eslinger, LT Rian Melander and guard Mark Setterstrom. Maroney has run for 1,243 yards and averages 6.6 yards per carry, while Barber has gained 1,082 yards and averages 5.6 ypc.

LB Kyle McKenzie — The Gopher defense lacks overall size, but that does not apply to the 6-1, 230 pound McKenzie. He leads the team with 75 tackles, including seven TFL and 2.5 sacks.

PRO POTENTIAL: C Greg Eslinger — He is a finalist for the Rimington Award and should be a great blocker at the next level. While he is a junior, he is at the top of his game and is well thought of by NFL scouts. He is a 286-pound technician who knows the nuances of his position.

INJURY IMPACT: The Gophers should be healthy as they prepare for the postseason.

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