Gophers leaders of Big Ten pack

Mark Schneider

For the first time since 1999, the Big Ten features seven teams that have garnered a spot in the Associated Press Poll: No. 3 Ohio State, No. 14 Iowa, No. 17 Minnesota, No. 18 Purdue, No. 20 Michigan, No. 21 Michigan State and No. 23 Wisconsin. That this total total leads all conferences (the Big 12 and SEC each have four nationally-ranked teams) hardly comes as a surprise, as many surmised that the Big Ten would be the nation’s deepest conference.

What few could have predicted, however, is who would be leading the way to BCS bowl eligibility: Minnesota.

With their win over Northwestern last week, the Golden Gophers improved to 6-0, making them the first Big Ten team to be bowl eligible. Also, with a 2-0 conference record, Minnesota sits alone atop the Big Ten standings.

“I’ve made no bones about it, I think I’ve got my best football team since I’ve been here at Minnesota,” said coach Glen Mason, who is in his seventh season. “I’ve got more pieces of the puzzle in place and I don’t have to rely on any true freshmen playing.”

Experience has been a key factor in Minnesota’s torrid start. Now in his senior year, quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq leads the Big Ten with a pass efficiency rating of 189.6, earning high praise from opposing coaches.

“Kaliq is a great athlete and a great quarterback,” said Michigan coach Lloyd Carr. “He creates plays as well as any quarterback in the country.”

The Gophers defense has also improved as it has aged. More experience on the defensive line, coupled with the arrival of defensive line coach Tom Sims three seasons ago, has led to noticeable improvement: The Gophers jumped from 14 sacks in 2001 to 31 in 2002 and thus far have the conference’s third-best scoring defense with an average of 13.7 points allowed per game.

Not to be forgotten is the Gophers’ rushing attack. Last year, injuries decimated Minnesota’s depth at running back, but this season, Terry Jackson II, sophomore Marion Barber III, senior Thomas Tapeh and freshman Laurence Maroney have contributed, each rushing for more than 250 yards on the season. Together, they have combined to give the Gophers the Big Ten’s top rushing attack with an average of 277 yards per game and 22 touchdowns.

An ‘A’ for the ‘D’

With their blistering play during a four-game winning streak, the Purdue defense has surpassed Iowa’s as the stingiest in the Big Ten. Since its 27-26 opening loss to Bowling Green, Purdue has not surrendered more than 10 points in a game, giving the defense a conference-best 12.8 points allowed per game.

“If our defense continues to perform at this level, it will get the recognition it deserves,” said coach Joe Tiller. “We are still searching for our identity offensively. We can thank our defense for carrying us.”

The success of Purdue’s defense is not totally unexpected — nine of last year’s 11 starters have returned. Particularly impressive has been the play of two seniors: Defensive tackle Craig Terrill has been a force in the middle and linebacker Gilbert Gardner leads the team with 32 tackles.

Ready or Not

Injury and circumstance have combined to force Penn State to rely on young, inexperienced players at quarterback and running back. Sophomore Michael Robinson has started since an ankle injury sidelined junior quarterback Zack Mills two weeks ago, and true freshman Austin Scott has solidified his position as the team’s rusher.

So far this season, Scott has rushed for five touchdowns and held a 60.8 yards per game average, ninth-best in the Big Ten. Two weeks ago against Minnesota, Robinson completed 16 of 27 passes for 178 yards and threw two interceptions. The following week against Wisconsin, Robinson connected on 22 of 43 passes for 379 yards and two touchdowns and did not commit a turnover.

“We are going to play, in our opinion, a rapidly improving Penn State team,” Purdue’s Tiller said. “They are led by a quarterback who looks to have made a 100 percent improvement from two weeks ago to last week.”