After closing the regular season with five losses in their last six games, Minnesota limped the Music City Bowl against Alabama. Apparently, some time off was just what the Gophers needed.
Off since a Nov. 13 loss to Iowa, the Gophers got back to doing the things they do best. Those things include knock defenders down with a huge and powerful offensive line and pick up big yards on the ground with Marion Barber and Laurence Maroney.
That commitment to the run was a good idea, but executing that game plan figured to be difficult against Alabama's highly ranked run defense. Still, Glen Mason had no other choice because running the football is what the Gophers do best.
Minnesota's running game came back in spectacular fashion. The Gophers ran for 276 yards as Barber ran for 187 yards and a touchdown while Maroney added 105 yards.
Alabama had not allowed a 100-yard rushing effort all season — not even against Auburn. The Crimson Tide had found a way to slow down Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown. That motivated the Gophers to try to do something that no other team had done.
"Alabama's players were asked how you're going to shut down a pair of guys who gained 1,000 yards two years in a row, and they said, 'Well, we shut down Auburn,' " Mason said. "I heard my guys talking about that a lot. Not from a standpoint of boasting, just from, 'Let's see if we can do better than Auburn.' "
That running game keyed Minnesota's 20-16 victory over the Crimson Tide. The defense was generally spectacular, limiting Alabama to 21 rushing yards.
It was the kind of hard-nosed play that typified the early part of the Gopher season, but had disappeared in the second half of the year.
All Mason can do now is try to recapture the magic in 2005.
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 late-season slumber. Minnesota trailed 23-10 at the half, but came all the way back and had a chance to win at the end, when Rhys Lloyd's 51-yard FG attempt with 28 seconds to play went wide left. Minnesota then picked up where it left off in that game by beating Alabama 20-16 in the Music City Bowl.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR: RB Laurence Maroney — The speedy sophomore was very consistent, running for 1,348 yards and 12 touchdowns. Marion Barber could have also been a great choice, but Maroney has more speed and is the better breakaway back.
RAPID REVIEW: Minnesota is probably the team that needs a regular appointment with a psychologist. For the second season in a row, the Gophers started the year in spectacular fashion but a midseason loss to Michigan sent them into an inescapable funk. While they managed to win in the postseason for the third year in a row, the Gophers have to learn how to put their disappointments behind them
FAST FORWARD: The key to this team has been its overpowering running game. Both Marion Barber and Laurence Maroney are scheduled to return, so there's no reason why the Gophers can't once again get things done from an offensive perspective. If Bryan Cupito can show more maturity at the QB slot, Minnesota should be able to show some improvement.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Unbelievable. You couldn't ask for anything better." — Senior tackle Rian Melander on the productive Minnesota running game in his last game in a Gopher uniform.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
PLAYERS TO WATCH IN 2005: 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 1,348 yards and scored 12 touchdowns, while Barber has gained 1,269 yards and had 11 touchdowns.
LB Kyle McKenzie — The Gopher defense lacks overall size, but that does not apply to the 6-1, 230-pound McKenzie. He had 75 tackles, including seven for loss and 2.5 sacks.
ROSTER REPORT: Backup quarterback Adam Ernst, who attempted only one pass this season (five fewer than running back Marion Barber), has a shoulder injury that will require surgery. ... Redshirt freshman defensive back Samad Cain will transfer to Grand Valley (Mich.) State.
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