ONE FLATTENS linemen with battering-ram shoulders; the other slips past them with dizzying speed. But Minnesota tailbacks Marion Barber III and Laurence Maroney are so complementary that not even the Metrodome P.A. announcer can keep the two straight. In a 43-17 win over Northwestern last Saturday, a 50-yard first-quarter touchdown sprint by Maroney was credited to " Marion Barrrr-ber!" and after a 21-yard fourth-quarter scoring pass by Barber on a halfback option, kudos went to "Laurence Ma-roooo-ney!" No matter, say the teammates, whose total rushing yards--526 for Maroney, 514 for Barber--rank sixth and seventh respectively, in the nation. "We're each other's biggest fans," says Maroney.
Barber and Maroney weren't always on the same page. When they met in the winter of 2003, Barber, a laconic, low-key product of Plymouth, Minn., and the son of the former Golden Gophers and NFL back, was healing from a hamstring injury that forced him to redshirt his second year, and Maroney, a motormouth from St. Louis, was a top high school recruit making his campus visit. Opposites repelled. "You could tell he thought he was a hotshot," says Barber. "As for MB," counters Maroney, "he just didn't look like too nice a person."
Once Maroney showed he had the skills to back up his strut, a mutual respect was forged. Told last year that they would split snaps, the teammates agreed that partnership had its rewards--like reducing their chances of injury and increasing defenses' confusion. Coaches knew they had a winning formula in the Gophers' fifth game, when the duo spearheaded a pair of first-quarter scoring drives in a 20-14 win over Penn State. "The way they were both grinning, it was clear it didn't matter who got into the end zone," says running backs coach Vic Adamle. "That set the tone for the season."
In the months that followed, Barber (5'11", 215 pounds) and Maroney (5'11", 205 pounds) shared carries and acclaim. Along the way to a combined 2,317 rushing yards and 27 touchdowns, a performance that earned Barber all-conference first-team honors and Maroney the Big Ten freshman of the year award, respect evolved into friendship. Now Barber will call Maroney on holidays, and Maroney will call on Barber to lure him out of his apartment on free nights. "He still gets on my nerves a little," says Barber good-naturedly. "But most of the time you'll find us together."
You might find them talking cautiously about their shared quest, which has nothing to do with rushing statistics. While Barber and Maroney could become the first teammates in NCAA history to gain 1,000 yards each in two seasons, they profess to be more interested in taking the Gophers--who fortuitously face neither Ohio State nor Purdue this season--to their first conference title in 37 years. "At the end of the day it's the W that matters," says Barber. "Whether I have one or 15 carries, I'm not too troubled."
Big Ten opponents, facing these two, ought to be. -- Kelley King