Minnesota Golden Gophers: The Big Ten's Darkhorse in 2009

Brandon Erickson@derkipstaCorrespondent IAugust 27, 2009

MINNEAPOLIS - SEPTEMBER 13:  Quarterback Adam Weber #8 of the Minnesota Golden Gophers drops back to pass against the Montana State Bobcats at the Metrodome on September 13, 2008 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

After a year to forget for head coach Tim Brewster, the Golden Gophers came out in 2007 and flopped on their faces to 1-11 record in the wake of Brewsters' claimed return to the Rose Bowl and days of Minnesota being a national contender.

In 2008 however, the Gophers came out surprising with a 7-1 record to open the season. The run seemed improbable as Gopher fans began talking about a possible New Years Day Bowl or even the possibility of a BCS Bowl.

Those dreams were dashed quickly however as the Gophers would lose their next four games to finish the season 7-5 and settled for an Insight Bowl bid against the University of Kansas. Ultimately, the Gophers would lose to Kansas to finish the season on a five-game losing streak and a 7-6 record.

Players last season like Willie Van de Steeg whom have now gone will leave a big hole in a defensive line that grew accustomed to his playmaking presence. Besides Van de Steeg though, the Gophers have 17 returning starters, seven of them on defense.

Although the defense that went from deplorable in 2007 to respectable in 2008 features a more experienced group, the Gophers offense will be its key figure heading into 2009. The return of now junior quarterback, Adam Weber will bring a strong experienced veteran presence to this offense.

His 2,761 yards (2nd in Big Ten), 15 touchdowns (4th in Big Ten), and eight interceptions in 2008 made him a premier QB in the Big Ten. His highlighted feature however, was his accuracy, completing on a Big Ten best 62.2% of his passes. His playmaking ability that has been slowly growing these past couple years will surely highlight him as a leader in the Big Ten at quarterback this coming season.

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A main reason for Weber's spectacular numbers was now senior, Eric Decker. In his junior season, Decker caught 84 passes (most in Big Ten) for 1,074 yards (most in Big Ten). He also led the Big Ten in touchdowns (7), yards/game (12.8) and the longest reception (75 yards). Although Decker had the option to leave as he was drafted in the MLB draft this past summer, he opted to return to the U of M and play another season.

No doubt, his playmaking ability makes him a top receiving prospect in the country and should help spread an offense known more for producing top notch running backs such as Lawrence Maroney or Marion Barber III.

It will also help the Gophers offense to get its 1st string halfback back from injury. After tearing his ACL in the fourth quarter of the team’s second game last season, running back Duane Bennett didn’t waste time feeling sorry for himself. He utilized the weight room regularly, bulking up to 206 pounds in the offseason. His now chiseled frame will help him have more power in his running and should help the Gophers to open up the passing game for Decker.

The 2008 offense however, did struggle to find weapons aside from Eric Decker. Enter wide receiver Hayo Carpenter, a junior college All-American at College of the Canyons (Calif.), who turned down numerous offers from top schools before selecting the Gophers. The 5-11, 185-pound wideout could be the yin to Decker’s yang that really increases Minnesota’s scoring output. Minnesota averaged 23.2 points per game last season, good for ninth in the league.

First-year offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch replaces last season’s spread with a pro-style offense that places an emphasis on a power running game, while utilizing multiple sets. It's no surprise that Fisch added some beef up front to help utilize the strong running game and to still make teams plan for the passing game.

The addition of Jeff Wills (6-7, 375 pounds) and Matt Carufel (6-5, 303 pounds) should help Fisch implement the running style he covets. A healthy Duane Bennett should be at the top of the depth chart once the season begins, but he’ll have a nice core of guys making him work hard for that sport in Shady Salamon, DeLeon Eskridge and Kevin Whaley.

New defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove hopes to keep things simple on defense for a unit that went from the worst total defense in the country to 80th under former defensive coordinator Ted Roof.

What the first-year man doesn’t want his defense to give up, however, is its edginess, which helped produced a league-leading 34 sacks and 31 takeaways. That has to be balanced with smart gambles, however, as Minnesota possessed last year’s second-worst passing defense in the Big Ten (240.3 yards per game).

A year ago, Minnesota’s first five opponents, none of which competed in a major conference, finished the year with a 26-24 record. This season, the Gophers face four teams from major conferences in their first four games. Those opponents finished 29-22 last season. With potential national power Cal and stubborn league foe Northwestern both meeting Minnesota early, the Gophers will need a strong start to take any momentum into the middle stretch of the season.

That’s why some Gophers supporters believe that this season’s Gophers could outperform last year’s team but still post a woeful record. The buzz couldn’t be greater with football’s return to the Minnesota campus via the new, 50,000-seat TCF Bank Stadium. The nearly $300 million open-air facility opens for business Sept. 12, when the Gophers take on Air Force.

As if ushering in the return to campus doesn’t put enough pressure on the team, Minnesota opens up TCF Bank Stadium with a tilt against an Air Force squad with a notorious run game that led the Mountain West with 266.9 rushing yards per game. The Gophers were second from the bottom in the Big Ten in total defense (383.6 yards allowed per game) but return most of last season’s defenders.

The matchup against the Falcons kicks off a four-game stretch that also includes home games against Cal and Wisconsin and a road game against Northwestern.