Gophers’ quartet of tailbacks rule Big Ten

David Sterrett

Minnesota’s rushing attack is very different from the Ohio State ground game Northwestern stifled last week.

The No. 21 Golden Gophers’ running backs — all four of them — have far exceeded preseason expectations.

The Wildcats (2-3, 0-1 Big Ten) will need to slow the run if they want to get their first Big Ten win of the season when they face Minnesota (5-0, 1-0) at 11 a.m. Saturday at Ryan Field.

Minnesota has used its rushing attack to outscore its opponents 207-58, but critics have questioned the strength of the opposition — Tulsa, Troy State, Ohio, Louisiana-Lafayette and Penn State.

“I thought they played pretty well against Penn State last week, and I think they’re a legitimate football team,” NU coach Randy Walker said. “We’re going to have our hands full because Minnesota is really rushing the football well.”

The Gophers have the top rushing attack in the conference and the third best in the nation, racking up 284 yards a game on the ground.

Sophomore running back Marion Barber III leads Minnesota with 93 rushing yards per game and is coming off a 134-yard performance in last week’s 20-14 win over Penn State.

But Barber has plenty of support in the backfield as freshman Laurence Maroney, junior Terry Jackson II and senior Thomas Tapeh have all already run for more than 200 yards this year.

“All of their running backs have a little different style,” Walker said. “Couple the running backs with a very athletic quarterback who is not only a great passer, but also a very gifted runner, and they’re very tough.”

Speedy Minnesota signal caller Asad Abdul-Khaliq leads the nation in passing efficiency with a 160.7 mark.

The 6-foot-1 senior has completed more than 62 percent of his passes, but he’s attempted only 78 in the first five games.

“He’s one of those guys that when things kind of break down, and nothing is there, he makes something out of nothing,” Walker said. “It’s one of those ones where the defense bangs their head against the wall.”

The Cats’ defense didn’t have to face Abdul-Khaliq last year as he sat out Minnesota’s 45-42 victory at the Metrodome.

With Abdul-Khaliq on the sideline, the Gophers gained more than 400 yards rushing against a defense that allowed more than 300 yards on the ground per game last season.

But the Cats’ defense has only yielded 146 rushing yards per game this season, and is now led by middle linebacker Pat Durr, who missed all of last year with an injury.

“If our defensive ends don’t contain Khaliq and stop him from running the ball, he’s going to try to make plays and make people pay,” Durr said. “He’s a great quarterback and a great athlete.”

While Abdul-Khaliq and the offense have had no problem scoring points, the Gophers’ defense has not allowed an opponent to score more than 20 points this season.

The Minnesota defense, led by senior free safety Eli Ward and senior middle linebacker Ben West, have surrendered less than 150 passing yards per game this season.

“They’re very stingy on defense,” Walker said. “They fly around and give you a lot of problems.”

Walker expects the offense to rebound this week after mistakes and penalties plagued the team last week, but he knows the defense will need to stop Minnesota’s running backs to win.

“Supposedly they’re called the threeheaded monster,” Durr said. “I don’t think they’re anything special, they’re just another running back and you can’t treat them as a Heisman candidate.”