Gophers’ duo runs right past Cats

Tania Ganguli

The Daily Northwestern

MINNEAPOLIS — What Minnesota’s running backs can do is no secret.

But as the Wildcats found out Saturday night, stopping Lawrence Maroney and Marion Barber III might be.

“They both come out and run hard and they run over people,” defensive tackle Luis Castillo said.

Barber and Maroney had their way with a Northwestern line that returned to a four-man front with its linebackers up close to help. The Golden Gophers’ offensive line still held the Cats off and opened gaping holes for the tailback team that garnered 231 of Minnesota’s 251 rushing yards.

The Cats regained defensive end David Thompson and linebacker John Pickens, but neither started and both saw limited action — Pickens had two tackles while Thompson had four. Thompson and linebacker Nick Roach, who started in Pickens’ place, had the most success stopping Barber early.

But with Barber contained for the first few plays, Maroney picked up his slack early. He ran through and around the Cats for the Gophers’ first touchdown. NU safety Brian Heinz nearly stopped Maroney’s 50-yard effort five yards downfield, but Maroney shook the tackle and broke free for the touchdown. He and Barber shed tackles throughout the game, and NU defenders seemed unable to hold on to either back. The tailbacks rarely fell after the first defender hit them.

“Playing Northwestern, we knew they hit hard,” Maroney said. “I knew I couldn’t go down after the first hit.”

Maroney ran for 145 yards on 24 carries and his productive running far outshined Barber’s. Barber had 83 yards on 22 carries and also had a 39-yard kickoff return in the first quarter.

Barber’s performance was a marked change from last week when the tailback was named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week for his 201-yard outing against Colorado State.

Saturday’s performances pulled Maroney’s per-game average to 131.5, three yards higher than Barber’s.

“It’s amazing that one has a hot hand one game, and the other the next,” Minnesota coach Glen Mason said. “There is no rhyme or reason for who’s going to have the better game.”

For a team whose average per game is more than 300 yards rushing, 251 wasn’t that impressive. Part of the reason why NU contained Minnesota’s rushing output was that NU had focused most of its energy on stopping the run. The week before the game, the Cats’ main focus was on the two running backs and how much damage they could do. This played into Mason’s hands.

“When teams overplay the run, like Northwestern did tonight, we have the ability to pass effectively,” Mason said. “I felt like we did a good job of taking what they were giving us.”

NU was unable to stop the run, an area that previously had been the stronger part of its defense, and couldn’t do much against Minnesota’s passing attack. The lack of efficiency visibly frustrated the Cats’ defense as the game wound down.

“It was terrible, you know, if we really get down to it, we knew we could stop the run,” defensive tackle Luis Castillo said. “But they kept going to the pass and the option and keeping us off our toes.”

Ultimately, all the Cats could do was watch.

“It’s going to be one of those things where they both go over 1,000,” NU coach Randy Walker said. “It’s nice to have two quality backs like that and keep people off balance.”

Reach Tania Ganguli at [email protected]