Minnesota Gophers Open Season Saturday

The Minnesota Gophers open their season against Mid-American Conference foe Northern Illinois Saturday. The Gophers are hoping to bounce back from a 1-11 season in head coach Tim Brewster's first year. Minnesota split two games against Mid-American foes, losing to Bowling Green 32-31 in overtime in the season opener and defeating Miami of Ohio in two overtimes 41-35 in the second game of the year.

Minnesota returns seven offensive starters from last year. Adam Weber was named third team freshman All-American and freshman All-Big Ten by The Sporting News as a first year starter. He started all 12 games and completed 258 of 449 passes for 2,895 yards and 24 touchdowns. Weber threw for at least one touchdown in 11 of 12 games and set school records for pass completions, attempts, yards and touchdown passes. He averaged 241.2 passing yards per game to ranked third in the Big Ten and second in the nation among freshmen quarterbacks. Weber also ranked third in the Big Ten and second nationally among freshmen in passing touchdowns. He finished as Minnesota's leading rusher with 617 yards on 146 attempts and had five rushing touchdowns to share the team lead with Amir Pinnix. Weber needs to cut down on his turnovers after throwing 19 interceptions.

Weber's top pass receiver, Eric Decker, is back after he set the Minnesota single-season record for receptions with 67. He started all 12 games and was named the recipient of the Bruce Smith Award as the team's outstanding offensive player. Decker had nine touchdown passes, which it tied for the third-most on Minnesota's single-season chart and ranked fourth in the Big Ten in receiving yards per game (75.8) and sixth in the conference receptions per game (5.58).

The Gophers must replace starting wide receiver Ernie Wheelwright, who had 66 receptions for 775 and nine touchdowns. Ralph Spry had 23 catches for 226 yards and three scores as a true freshman. He started six of 12 games last season. Tray Herndon, who had 22 catches as a true freshman, transferred to Vanderbilt.

Senior tight end Jack Simmons, who was slowed by a foot injury last season, snared 20 passes. He caught seven passes for 134 yards in the 2006 Insight Bowl and seemed poised for a big junior season before the injury. Simmons switched to jersey number 15 for his senior season to honor his father Jack, a former Gopher.

The Gophers are hoping to regain their running game prowess. They had their eight-year streak of having a 1,000-yard rusher snapped. Minnesota has produced NFL rusher Marion Barber III and Laurence Maroney during that time. The Gophers under Glen Mason prided themselves on their rushing game. Injuries to Amir Pinnix, who had rushed for 1,272 in 2006 and Jay Thomas, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the eighth game of the year, hurt their rushing attack as the team went to a spread offense.

Duane Bennett earned freshman All-Big Ten honors from The Sporting News as he finished third in both rushing yards (442) and rushing touchdowns (3). Bennett made six of his seven starts during Big Ten play and rushed for a season-high 106 yards versus Michigan.

Thomas is hoping to make a complete recovery from his second severe knee injury. He rushed for 215 yards, including 100 yards against Northwestern in his lone start of the season. Thomas suffered a knee injury against North Dakota State in the next game.

The Gophers have just two running backs with experience, so freshmen Shady Salamon, DeLeon Eskridge and Kevin Whaley could be asked to play early in their careers.

Minnesota lost three offensive line starters, including their starting center and both tackles. The Gophers have plenty of young talent and four redshirt freshman will be counted on heavily this season. Minnesota has been hurt by nagging injuries during early practices, but it has allowed some of the younger lineman a chance to play early.

The Gophers figure to be a high-powered offense in their second season under Brewster. They need to establish the running game and cut down on their turnovers, if they hope to have a successful 2008 season.

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