2006 Big Ten Preview: Minnesota

We continue our look at Ohio State's 2006 opponents as well as the Big Ten with this preview of Minnesota. The Golden Gophers have 16 starters back, but could be hard pressed to continue their four-year postseason string. Quarterback Bryan Cupito is back after throwing for 2,530 yards and 19 TDs last year.

Here is the ninth in a Bucknuts.com series on Ohio State's 2006 football opponents as well as a preview for the Big Ten in 2006. We continue with the Oct. 28 game against Minnesota.

Minnesota

* Date, Time: Sat., Oct. 28, time TBA (seems likely to be at 3:30 p.m. on ABC).

* Location: Ohio Stadium.

* Last Year, Bowl: 7-5, lost to Virginia in Music City Bowl. Big Ten: 4-4/seventh.

* Coach: Glen Mason (10th year at UM, 58-50; 20th year overall, 117-114-1).

* Returning Starters: 16. Offense (7): WR Logan Payne, WR Ernie Wheelwright, QB Bryan Cupito, LG Tony Brinkhaus, LT Steve Shidell, FB Justin Valentine, TE Matt Spaeth. Defense (7): DE Steve Davis, SLB Mario Reese, MLB Mike Sherels, WLB John Shevlin, CB Jamal Harris, SS Dominic Jones, FS Trumaine Banks. Specialists (2): K Jason Giannini, P Justin Kucek.

* Big Ten Championships: 18, last shared title in 1967.

* Rose Bowls: 2, last appearance in 1961.

* BCS Bids: None.

* National Championships (Rissman/Rockne, 1924-35; Associated Press, 1936-2005): 5 (1934, ‘36, ‘40, ‘41, ‘60).

* Series Vs. Ohio State: Ohio State leads the series 38-7, including 19-3 in Columbus. The Buckeyes have won 19 of the last 20 in the series dating to a loss at Minnesota in 1981. The lone UM win in that stretch was a 29-17 win at Columbus in 2000. Last year, the Buckeyes won 45-31 at Minnesota.

* Schedule: Aug. 31, at Kent State; Sept. 9, at California; Sept. 16, Temple; Sept. 23, at Purdue; Sept. 30, Michigan; Oct. 7, Penn State; Oct. 14, at Wisconsin; Oct. 21, North Dakota State; Oct. 28, at Ohio State; Nov. 4, Indiana; Nov. 11, at Michigan State; Nov. 18, Iowa.

* Outlook: Mason and the UM administration had a contract standoff in the days leading up to the Music City Bowl. Mason got a lucrative extension and the promise of a new outdoor on-campus stadium. TCF Bank Stadium, a 50,000-seat venue, will cost close to $250 million and will be ready by 2009 as the Gophers seek to burrow out of the sterile Metrodome.

"The stadium will be there, it's a done deal," Mason said. "When is it going to be there? Not soon enough. We plan to open the 2009 season in the new venue."

The Gophers may struggle to keep their four-year bowl string alive after losing both of their 1,000-yard rushers, Laurence Maroney and Gary Russell. Maroney left for the NFL a year early, while Russell was lost due to academics. Junior Amir Pinnix may be the next UM back in the spotlight, hoping to keep the school's string of eight straight years with a 1,000-yard rusher alive.

"Our most notable returning running back is junior Amir Pinnix," Mason said. "He's been waiting in the wings for a few years now. Not this last spring, but the two previous springs he had been named Outstanding Player of the Spring Game. We're not going to have the type of talent and depth we've had at running back in the past."

Cupito (2,530 yards passing, 19 TDs) also returns for his senior year. The 6-5 Wheelwright (37 catches) is coming into his own as a receiver.

"I think it's tough to get the credit you deserve when you play for a run-oriented offense," Mason said of Cupito. "Without the numbers, you may not get the attention. But without the ability to throw the ball, the running game isn't nearly as successful. The fact that we do run the ball so much is why he is probably considered underrated by many."

The UM defense gave up a bundle of big plays a year ago. But Davis was a nice find as a freshman at end, as was Jones at strong safety.

"I'm really anxious for our upcoming season," Mason said. "We're losing very few players from our 2005 ball club, but the players we lost were pretty darn good players. I've been impressed with the work ethic of the returning players. The players and I are growing tired of answering the same questions about the players we lost because we return a lot of guys who played a significant amount of football for us last year."

* Jerry Rudzinski Says: They open with Kent, then go to Cal. That will be a tough one. Minnesota has a tough schedule up and down the line. I can't see them making it to a bowl game this year. They'll have to win some games they aren't supposed to win, and I know they have done that the past seven years with wins over Penn State and the win at Michigan last year.

I don't think their run of postseason appearances will continue without a good running game. Mitch Browning, their offensive coordinator, was quoted as saying he didn't think they had a running back who was capable of playing in the Big Ten right now. That's frightening.

Cupito has to stand out for them. He is a fifth-year senior. He has started 23 of the last 24 games. Ernie Wheelwright could be an All-Big Ten player. They need him to break out. The tight end, Matt Spaeth, will also catch a lot of balls. They lose two big names off the line with Greg Eslinger and Mark Setterstrom.

The defensive line is undersized. They will be outsized by every offensive line they will play. I don't think that will fly in the Big Ten. You need to have some anchor points and some guys who will hold their ground. Steve Davis, at 230 pounds, is a nice guy coming off the edge. But I don't think he can dominate a game just yet.

* Steve Helwagen Says: Glen Mason had a hand in John Cooper's demise with the win in Columbus in 2000, but has had no luck against his alma mater or Jim Tressel since then. You know that has to gnaw at him after the way OSU passed him up, although the president and athletic director who hired Tressel aren't around any more.

The Buckeyes won 45-31 last year at the Metrodome. It is a little bit of a transitional year for Minnesota. Bryan Cupito returns at quarterback, but the Gophers lost Laurence Maroney early to the NFL and saw Gary Russell flunk out of school.

Cupito torched Ohio State for 396 yards in that game last year at Minnesota. Of course, OSU was sitting on Maroney and the running game that day and that helped allow Cupito to have such a big day. Wheelwright at 6-5 and 215 pounds will give some people some fits.

The win at Michigan last year means a lot. They know they can pull off the big game. I look at the defense and see some nice guys back like Ohioans Keith Massey, Trumaine Banks and Dominic Jones. Without Ohio, they'd have a hard time putting this team together. They may be a year or two away from being a strong defensive unit.

Below are archives of past opponent previews:

Game 1: Northern Illinois

Game 2: Texas

Game 3: Cincinnati

Game 4: Penn State

Game 5: Iowa

Game 6: Bowling Green

Game 7: Michigan State

Game 8: Indiana


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