Opponents preview: Minnesota offense

Part two of BadgerNation.com's three-part look at the 2005 Gophers

Minnesota has one of the best running games in the nation with the combination of one of the nation's best offensive lines and one of its best tailbacks. Second-year starting quarterback Bryan Cupito is capable and he has a pretty good group of receivers at his disposal.

2004 by the numbers

Total offense: 438.33 yards per game (No. 15 nationally); 399.0 yards per conference game (No. 4 Big Ten)
Scoring offense: 30.08 points per game (29); 25.90 (3)
Passing offense: 181.50 (88); 183.0 (7)
Passing efficiency: 129.78 (47); 117.70 (6)
Rushing offense: 256.83 (5); 216.0 (2)
Touchdowns: 46 – 29 rushing, 17 passing; 27 – 16 rushing, 11 passing
Third-down conversions: 39 percent on 68 of 175; 35.5 on 43 of 121 (9)
Turnovers lost: 13 – 9 interceptions and 4 fumbles (7); 9 – 7 interceptions and 2 fumbles (2)
Field goal kicking: 66 percent on 12 of 18; 70 on 7 of 10 (5 in percentage rank)
Kick returns: 18.55 (91); 19.4 (9)
Punt returns: 7.10 (89); 6.0 (10)

Quarterbacks analysis

Fourth-year junior Bryan Cupito is back for round two after a respectable debut season as a starter last year. In a conference laden with returning starting quarterbacks, Cupito is a middle-of-the pack signal caller, but is a solid passer for Minnesota's vertical passing game. Starting all 12 games last season, he completed 123 of 261 passes for 2,097 yards, 14 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

With an elite running game and an improving receiving corps around him, Cupito should be poised for a more productive junior season, but he must improve upon his 47 percent completion percentage. That inefficiency is a big reason why UM struggled to convert third downs, ranking ninth in the conference in that category.

Cupito redshirted in 2002 and was a very little used third-string reserve in 2003.

The Gophers' backups? Three freshmen: Tony Mortensen (6-3, 200), Mike Maciejowski (6-3, 210) and Andre Sloan El (6-2, 185).

Minnesota's depth at the position suffered a blow when it became public that Adam Ernst had suffered a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder prior to last season, but had hid the injury from the media while trying to rehabilitate it. After undergoing surgery this offseason, Ernst is unlikely to ever again be cleared to play competitive football.

Offensive line analysis

This is a very strong unit led by seniors center Greg Eslinger and guard Mark Setterstrom (6-3, 295), the best at their positions that the conference has to offer.

If Eslinger's play is as good as it has been throughout his career, the Rimington Award is automatic and he could push for the Lombardi as well. He was a finalist for the Rimington and a semifinalist for the Lombardi last year, when he received some first-team All-America acclaim. He was a consensus first-team all-conference choice for the second year running.

Setterstrom is another of the league's best linemen, especially as a run blocker. He has started all 38 games the past three years and was a first-team all-conference pick last season by the media.

Junior left tackle Joe Ainsle (6-7, 300) started 11 games at tackle last year and six at right tackle as a redshirt freshman in 2003. He is a dependable all-around lineman who is overshadowed by his interior line teammates.

Minnesota has two new starters on the right side: senior guard Mike Nicholson (6-5, 285) and sophomore tackle Tony Brinkhaus (6-4, 295). Nicholson has played in 27 games. He started seven as a sophomore in 2003 and one last season. A former defensive tackle, Brinkhaus is a physical player who should be a good run blocker at the very least.

The top reserves include junior center Tyson Swaggert (6-4, 285), sophomore guard John Jakel (6-5, 280) and sophomore tackle Steve Shidell (6-5, 285).

Receivers analysis

The Gophers are loaded with quality receiving options. The starters on the outside for the second year in a row are senior Jared Ellerson (6-1, 200) and sophomore Ernie Wheelwright (6-5, 210), while tight ends junior Matt Spaeth (6-6, 270) and senior Jarod Posthumus (6-4, 255) are also returning starters.

Ellerson played in 37 of 38 possible games the past three seasons. He was an honorable mention all-league pick as a sophomore in 2003, when he caught 44 passes for 909 yards and five touchdowns. He has played in 12 games, with 11 starts, in each of the past two seasons. Ellerson caught 37 passes for 521 yards and three touchdowns last year.

Wheelwright burst onto the scene last season, catching 30 passes for 654 yards (21.8 yards per catch) and seven touchdowns. His combination of size and athleticism makes him one of the most difficult matchups in the Big Ten.

Top reserve senior Jakari Wallace (5-8, 170) is the fastest receiver on the team. He caught 20 passes for 341 yards last year.

Other top reserve receivers include sophomore Micah Rucker (6-6, 210) and walk-on junior Logan Payne (6-2, 200).

The Gophers return both starting tight ends to the lineup. Spaeth caught 24 passes for 298 receiving yards and four touchdowns a year ago and was named honorable mention All-Big Ten. He is like another lineman at his size and is an adept pass receiver.

Spaeth started all 12 games at the position. Posthumus played in all 12 games, and started 10, serving as more of a designated blocker. He had just two receptions for 57 yards and has four catches for 78 yards in his career.

Senior Kevin Salmen (6-5, 245) is the top reserve at tight end. He has seen limited playing time in reserve in his career.

Running backs analysis

Junior tailback Laurence Maroney (5-11, 205) is one of the best offensive talents in the nation. The question is not whether he is going to put up gaudy numbers, but just how gaudy. Will he rush for 1,500 yards? 1,700? 2,000? The latter is certainly possible. For the past two seasons, Maroney and Marion Barber III each had 1,000 rushing seasons, a feat never before accomplished in NCAA history.

Barber is now in the NFL, having foregone his senior season. That leaves the show to Maroney, who rushed for 1,348 yards and 12 touchdowns on just 217 carries last season. Barber went 231-1,269-11, leaving plenty of additional carries on the table for Maroney.

Maroney was a first-team All-Big Ten selection last year and the conference's freshman of the year in 2003. That season he rushed for 1,121 yards and 10 touchdowns on a mere 162 carries. For his career, Maroney has 2,469 rushing yards on 379 carries, a 6.5 yards per carry average. At that clip he would need 308 carries to crack the 2,000-yard plateau, or 25.6 carries per contest if the Gophers reach a bowl game.

But as good as Maroney is, he does not need to carry the load alone. Sophomore tailbacks Gary Russell (5-11, 195) and Amir Pinnix (6-0, 195) are excellent substitutes. They will command carries not just to spell Maroney, but because they are big-time playmakers in waiting. Russell rushed for 144 yards on 24 carries in just eight games last year, while Pinnix went for 137 yards and two scores on 26 attempts. The two combined for 218 yards and four touchdowns on 20 carries in Minnesota's spring game. That was, however, against the Gophers' defense….

Minnesota still misses the ultra-versatile Thomas Tapeh at fullback, but after a full season as the top player at the position, sophomore Justin Valentine (6-2, 215) should settle into his role. Junior walk-on Jason Lamers (6-0, 240) will also compete at the position.

Special teams notes

As good as Minnesota's running backs are, they proved rather pedestrian as kick returners last season. Barber led the team with a mere 20.6-yard average, followed by Maroney (19.8), Russell (17.1) and Pinnix (16.3). The Gophers' punt return game was even worse, with Barber averaging just 5.8 yards per return.

This season, Russell is expected to handle kick return duties, while Payne takes over as the punt returner.

The Gophers will miss Rhys Lloyd, who was 12 of 18 on field goals last season, including 11 of 12 from inside 40 yards. His replacement is likely freshman Jason Giannini (5-10, 180).

Matching up with Wisconsin

This matchup never really unfolded last season because the Badgers' offense rattled off its best performance and put the game out of reach in a hurry. That is really the best defense against Minnesota, however: take advantage of the Gophers' defense and keep their offense off the field.

Do not expect last year's rout to repeat itself, though. When Minnesota has the ball they are going to run the ball. Everyone knows that, but stopping it is the hard part. Wisconsin's defensive line will face no more challenging task all season than trying to gain some headway against the Gophers' run blockers. Expect Eslinger, Setterstrom, Ainsle and Co. to create significant room to operate for Maroney, Russell and Pinnix. Forget about holding the Gophers to 100 yards on the ground. A successful day for the Badgers' defense would be to keep them under 200.

Minnesota's tight ends and receivers also have an advantage against UW's linebackers and secondary, though not as substantial of an advantage as some may believe.

Directing it all is Bryan Cupito, who is the key to Minnesota's offensive season. How much he has improved by the time the Gophers host UW could be the decisive factor in this game. If he is still flirting with a 50 percent completion percentage and struggling to convert third downs the Badgers win. If he has developed into a more efficient passer to better balance that elite running game, it could be a long day at the Metrodome for visiting UW.

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