Coach: Glen Mason (9th season, 51-45) 2004 record: 7-5 (Beat Alabama in Music City Bowl) Big Ten finish: 3-5 (8th) 2004 I-A offensive rankings: Rushing: 5th (256.8 ypg) Passing: 88th (181.5 ypg) 2004 I-A defensive rankings: Rushing: 36th (130.7 ypg) Passing: 109th (266.0 ypg)
at Penn State
Depth Chart: Offense
8 returning starters in red
Depth Chart: Defense
7 returning starters in red
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To a certain extent, the story of the Minnesota football program has remained unchanged for each of the past three seasons. Under Glen Mason, the Gophers have become respectable and bowl regulars, but they're still looking for that true breakthrough.
Minnesota is looking to make the jump from a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team to one of the league's top two or three. But can the Gophers play well enough to go to a bowl destination that isn't Nashville or El Paso, or put a defense together that is good enough to win late-season games?
In 2004, the Gophers were again a September tease. Starting 5-0, Minnesota seemed destined to finally play in a Jan. 1 bowl game, but then the bottom fell out. A campaign that began with Rose Bowl talk ended with the Gophers losing five of their final six regular-season games.
Running the ball shouldn't be a problem in '05, but there are areas of concern entering this season. While the Gophers were encouraged with their defensive performance in a Music City Bowl victory over Alabama, it's difficult to have faith in a unit that gave up 35 points per game in losses last season.
At most schools, losing a running back who gained more than 1,200 yards and scored 11 touchdowns would be a significant -- if not fatal -- blow. Not at Minnesota. The departure of Marion Barber III isn't that big a deal. It just means that Laurence Maroney will become the focal point of Minnesota's offense. The junior who gained 1,348 yards a year ago is extremely explosive and can seemingly break a long run every time he touches the ball. Maroney, first team All-Big Ten last season, is among the elite backs in the country. Last season, he had seven touchdown runs of 20 or more yards, including a pair of 80-yard jaunts.
As good as Maroney is, Mason and his staff worked hard this spring on a passing attack that was average a year ago.
Returning starter Bryan Cupito wasn't as effective as the Gophers had hoped. Over the final 10 games of the season, Cupito passed for more than 200 yards only three times. He had only one 250-plus game in that stretch while throwing 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
On thing in Minnesota's favor is one of the better offensive lines in the Big Ten. Mason raves about center Greg Eslinger and left tackle Mark Setterstrom, All-Big Ten selections a year ago.
Since the end of last season, the Gophers' defense has been somewhat overhauled in an attempt to increase athleticism and decrease points and yards allowed. Players have changed positions, there is a new defensive coordinator in David Lockwood and there are claims that the Minnesota defense will be more aggressive than in the past.
The strength will be stopping the run. Two of the Gophers' four defensive line starters from last season return, tackles Anthony Montgomery and Mark Losli. Those two deserve much of the credit for the Gophers holding Alabama to only 21 rushing yards in the Music City Bowl.
From there, the Gophers' defense will have a different look. The Minnesota coaches are pleased with what they've seen from linebacker John Shevlin, a sophomore who has emerged as a team leader. Kyle McKenzie has moved to the outside after starting in the middle a year ago.
A secondary that was atrocious last season will look a little different. Safety Brandon Owens is expected to play more after a strong spring. In addition, the schemes have been simplified with the focus put on making plays rather than thinking on every play.
After having Rhys Lloyd handle the punting and kicking for two seasons, the Gophers are looking for new kickers. Justin Kucek will handle the punting duties while freshman Jason Giannini leads the race to kick.
Maroney and Gary Russell will return kicks. Logan Payne will likely return punts.
The Gophers have proved to be a bowl regular, having played in a postseason game after five of the past six seasons.
Now the Gophers have to take a step toward at least a middle-class bowl game. To do that they have to improve defensively against a tougher schedule. Illinois and Northwestern come off the schedule, replaced by Purdue and Ohio State. A difficult October stretch has the Gophers playing at Michigan and at home against Wisconsin and Ohio State.