A Closer Look: Minnesota Golden Gophers

No. 18 Ohio State finds itself needing to rebound this week. The Minnesota Golden Gophers, on the other hand, will try to extend the Buckeyes' losing streak to two when they come into Ohio Stadium for a Saturday matchup. Find out more about the 4-3 Golden Gophers and wideout Eric Decker in this closer look at Minnesota.

Minnesota (4-3, 2-2 Big Ten)
Saturday, Oct. 24
12 p.m. ET, ESPN
Ohio Stadium; Columbus, Ohio.

The Golden Gophers
Head coach: Tim Brewster, 12-20 at Minnesota, third year
2008 record: 7-5 (3-5 Big Ten)
Series mark: Ohio State leads 41-7
School location: Minneapolis, Minn.
Enrollment: 50,883
Colors: Maroon and Gold
Stadium: TCF Bank Stadium (50,805)
Fight song: "Minnesota Rouser"

Minnesota Players To Watch
QB Adam Weber: He's having an off year on the stat sheet, but Weber is still someone to be reckoned with. One of the top quarterbacks in Minnesota history, Weber has thrown for 1,325 yards and six touchdowns this year while struggling to adapt to the team's new offense. He is still a team leader and has plenty of toughness and mobility.

"I love their quarterback," Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel said. "We had him in youth camp. He's just a great person, great kid, great competitor, great passion."

WR Eric Decker: The most explosive offensive threat on the Minnesota team and probably the best receiver in the conference, Decker has proven to be tough to shut down in 2009. He has eight or more catches in five of seven games, and in four contests he's passed the 100-yard mark – all while opposing teams have tried to blanket him in coverage.

"When you watch the plays, he splits double teams, he goes up and gets the ball," OSU lineman Todd Denlinger said. "He's a great wide receiver."

LB Lee Campbell: The 246-pound former defensive end brings plenty of size to his middle linebacker position. Campbell is a team leader on and off the field. A team captain, Campbell is atop the squad's defensive stats with 77 tackles and eight tackles for loss.

LB Nate Triplett: A former special teams warrior, Triplett hit the film room going into his senior year. That work helped him win a starting spot in his final season, and he's done nothing to disappoint the Minnesota coaching staff. Triplett has 71 tackles, two interceptions and a fumble return for a touchdown.

Results
Sept. 5, at Syracuse, W 23-20 (OT)
Sept. 12, Air Force, W 20-13
Sept. 19, No. 7 California, L 35-21
Sept. 26, at Northwestern, W 35-24
Oct. 3, Wisconsin, L 31-28
Oct. 10, Purdue, W 35-20
Oct. 17, at No. 14 Penn State, L 20-0

Projected Starters
QB 8 Adam Weber, 6-3, 221
RB 22 Duane Bennett, 5-9, 203
WR 7 Eric Decker, 6-3, 220
WR 11 Troy Stoudermire, 5-10, 183
WR 1 Brandon Green, 6-0, 183
TE 48 Nick Tow-Arnett, 6-3, 248
LT 76 Dom Alford, 6-3, 336
LG 68 Chris Bunders, 6-3, 322
C 61 Trey Davis, 6-2, 281
RG 73 Matt Carufel, 6-5, 302
RT 71 Jeff Wills, 6-7, 365

DE 89 Barrett Moen, 6-3, 282
DT 99 Garrett Brown, 6-2, 310
DT 98 Eric Small, 6-2, 306
DE 97 Anthony Jacobs, 6-2, 289
LB 21 Simoni Lawrence, 6-1, 221
LB 30 Lee Campbell, 6-3, 246
LB 32 Nate Triplett, 6-3, 247
CB 15 Traye Simmons, 5-11, 180
S 27 Kyle Theret, 5-10, 193
S 3 Kim Royston, 5-11, 193
CB 24 Marcus Sherels, 5-11, 172

K 37 Eric Ellestad, 6-3, 204
P 38 Blake Haudan, 6-1, 210
KR 11 Troy Stoudermire, 5-10, 183/20 Jay Thomas, 6-0, 209
PR 81 Bryant Allen, 6-0, 167/24 Marcus Sherels, 5-11, 172

Five Fast Facts
1. Minnesota has come from behind in all four of its victories this season, and the Golden Gophers are 3-2 when trailing after the third quarter this year. They are also 4-1 when allowing less than 28 points and 4-1 when committing less than three turnovers.

2. The Golden Gopher special teams are solid in all phases. Senior punter Blake Haudan of Toledo St. John's has taken over from the injured Dan Orseske and averaged 42.8 yards on his 25 kicks with a long of 56. Ten of his kicks have been downed inside the 20, while six have been 50 yards or longer. Minnesota's net punting average of 40.8 yards per kick is second in the league and sixth in the country. In addition, Troy Stoudermire has averaged 26.6 yards per kickoff return and the team's punt return group is ranked the best in the country.

3. No Golden Gopher has rushed for 100 yards in a game this year.

4. Tim Brewster is 0-2 vs. Ohio State and Jim Tressel has never lost to Minnesota in six tries.

5. Minnesota passed 10 times during an Oct. 10 win against Purdue, the fewest passes for the team since it threw nine exactly seven years prior during an Oct. 10, 2002, win against Northwestern by a 45-42 score.

Offensive Scouting Report
Minnesota seemed to have the pieces for an explosive offense this year, but the only connection that has clicked is Adam Weber to Eric Decker.

That one has been perfectly fine, as Decker, the career leader in receiving yardage at Minnesota, tops the conference and is 10th in the nation in receiving yards per game with 104.4, and he has 47 grabs for 731 yards and five touchdowns on the season.

Just about everything else has struggled. Minnesota has not had a game in which it has topped 400 yards of offense, and it sits in the bottom three of the Big Ten in the major statistical categories. The passing (190.3 yards) and scoring (23.1 points) offenses are ninth in the league, while Minnesota sits dead last in rushing (103.4) and total (293.7) yardage.

Even the Decker connection has gone fruitless the past few games, with his streak of five straight games of at least eight catches to start the season coming to an end with a combined four catches during the past two games. Just one came last week against Penn State as the Golden Gophers lost 20-0.

"(Penn State) didn't do anything that anyone else doesn't do," head coach Tim Brewster said. "They rolled coverage some to him, played a lot of zone coverage. They bracketed him quite a bit. Obviously, that's what Eric Decker is going to see. To Eric's credit, he's very poised and he hung in there.

"We'll go into every game with a plan of how we want to try to get Eric the ball, by formation, motion and shift, try to create space for him, try to create opportunities for him. There were opportunities there against Penn State. He made a huge play down the middle of the field. We certainly anticipate him playing really well and having opportunities against Ohio State."

But the fact is, Minnesota hasn't found much to hang its hat on other than Decker. The Penn State game was a low point, with Minnesota gaining 138 yards and running only 40 plays. The team's 18 rushes earned 37 yards.

That running game has certainly been a problem, with Duane Bennett leading the way with 41.7 yards per game – 66 carries for 292 yards. Minnesota has tried him, DeLeon Eskridge and Kevin Whaley in the backfield and even used wildcat sets with backup quarterback MarQueis Gray, most ideas leading to little production.

"We're going through a situation," Bennett said. "We're doing our best to try to fix that and handle it and finish the season strong. Right now, I'm just focused on getting better every day and really being able to be a playmaker for the team."

Bennett seems set to earn the start against Ohio State. Eskridge, who started as a freshman after Bennett's injury last year, is next with 212 yards and three scores on 52 carries, and Whaley is a speedy third back with 124 yards and a score on 22 rushes, including 79 and a score on eight tries vs. Purdue on Oct. 10. Gray has 55 yards on 10 carries.

The backup quarterback has thrown but one pass as the gritty Weber continues as Minnesota's starting quarterback. But after Weber earned second-team All-Big Ten honors last year and threw for 39 touchdowns vs. 27 picks his first two years, the Minnesota native has struggled to fit into new offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch's scheme, which incorporates more downhill running and traditional sets as opposed to the spread offense the team ran Weber's first two seasons.

"We're both a little frustrated, knowing the potential we have," Weber said of Fisch and himself. "Our aspirations for this season, we haven't lived up to yet."

Weber is 11th in the Big Ten in passing efficiency, having completed 55.8 percent (106 of 190) passes for 1,325 yards, six touchdowns and nine interceptions. After totaling 850 rushing yards in his first two seasons, Weber has minus-27 this year on 32 carries.

The rest of the wideout group after Decker is not deep. The athletic Troy Stoudermire has hauled in 126 yards worth of passes and his first career touchdown on 14 catches. The team's third starter at wideout, Brandon Green, has 12 grabs for 140 yards. Hayo Carpenter was billed as a five-star JUCO transfer according to Scout, but he arrived on campus in August and has two catches for 43 yards. Tight end Nick Tow-Arnett has caught 16 passes for 216 yards.

Minnesota has given up 16 sacks on the year – 2.29 per game, which slots the squad ninth in the league in protecting the quarterback. Part of the problem has come at center, where a slew of injuries has resulted in three different starters this year. Sophomore Trey Davis is atop the depth chart, but junior D.J. Burris of Kenton, Ohio, started a week ago while Davis was handicapped with a knee injury.

The left side of the line is more experienced, with junior tackle Dom Alford of Shaker Heights, Ohio, having started 14 games in his career and sophomore guard Chris Bunders with 10. On the right side, junior guard Matt Carufel is a Notre Dame transfer in his first year as a starter at the U, while junior tackle Jeff Wills is a JUCO transfer who arrived on campus at 400 pounds.

Defensive Scouting Report
The problem with the Minnesota defense through seven games has been clear – it has a hard time forcing opponents to punt the football.

Opposing teams are converting 50.9 percent (56 of 110) of their third downs, a stat that got worse against Penn State when the Nittany Lions were 11 of 17 in those situations, allowing the Blue and White to possess the ball for nearly 42 minutes.

"We still have an issue on third downs," Brewster said. "We have to do a better job of getting off the field on third down. Third downs, long ones, are the ones that are obviously hurting us as a football team."

Minnesota has also been gashed in the running game, allowing 164.7 yards per game to place 10th in the league and 87th in the country in that stat. The team's 1.71 sacks per game is ninth in the Big Ten, as well.

While the Golden Gophers' line has struggled, they do have a pair of solid senior captains manning the middle in Garrett Brown and Eric Small, who have both started 26 straight games. Small is a run stuffer who leads the tackle group with 17 tackles along with a team-best three sacks, while the Brown has 15 stops and a forced fumble. Sophomore backup Brandon Kirksey has 12 tackles, three for loss.

Minnesota rotates four players at end, including starters Barrett Moen and Anthony Jacobs. The latter has been impressive in rising to the starting lineup, piling up 16 tackles and two sacks. Moen is a senior with nine tackles.

Senior backups Derrick Onuwachi and Cedric McKinley have missed time this year for differing reasons. Onuwachi suffered a knee injury on the first day of camp and has seven tackles in four games, while McKinley was suspended for two earlier games for team rules violations after beginning the year as a starter. He has 12 tackles, including 3.5 for loss. Redshirt freshman D.L. Wilhite is a pass rusher who is second on the team with two sacks in limited action.

The Golden Gophers boast a solid linebacking unit with two of the top three tacklers in the league in seniors Lee Campbell and Nate Triplett. Campbell sits behind only Michigan State's Greg Jones when it comes to tackles with 77 along with eight TFL and an interception. Triplett has found his way into the starting lineup for his senior year, and he's responded with 71 tackles, four TFL, two interceptions and a fumble return for a touchdown.

The third linebacker is the most athletic in Simoni Lawrence, another team captain. A former safety, Lawrence added 20 pounds of muscle in the offseason and has 54 tackles on the season. Fourth linebacker Keanon Cooper, a speedy redshirt freshman, keeps nosing his way into more playing time with 34 tackles – 33 of which have come in the past five weeks – and a sack.

Minnesota boasts an experienced secondary with four starters who are upperclassmen, including senior cornerbacks Traye Simmons and Marcus Sherels.

Sherels has missed two games because of sprained ankle, but he's had a big year with 32 tackles and an 88-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown against Wisconsin. On the other side, Simmons, known as "Big Play Traye" has a blocked kick return for a touchdown along with an interception, as well as 23 tackles.

Theret, a junior safety, has started 25 games in his career. This year, he has 45 tackles and three pass breakups after lots of offseason work to make up for a campaign last year in which he alternately struggled and made plays. The other starter is Wisconsin transfer Kim Royston, who has 41 tackles and an interception.

Nickel back Ryan Collado, a junior out of Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy who can play corner or safety, has 16 tackles.


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