It's easy to be skeptical of the statistics and the trends from a victory over Middle Tennessee State, especially when the Gophers' schedule includes five -- five! -- teams currently ranked 18th or high in the nation. The Blue Raiders have an excellent offense and a quick, capable defense, and they were a much better Opening Night opponent, particularly on their home field, than the Gophers are likely to get credit for. You could make a case that MTSU might be the second-best opponent that any of the nine Big Ten winners faced last week (I'd say UConn, which lost to Michigan, is probably the exception).
That said, the Gophers rushed for 287 yards in Murfreesboro, their most since piling up 306 against Miami of Ohio on Sept. 8, 2007. It's the first game of a new emphasis, a new commitment, to the ground game. And it came against the smallest defensive line -- MTSU averaged 249 pounds across the front, while Wisconsin, for instance, averages 279 -- the Gophers will face this year.
Begs a question, doesn't it? It's one thing to run against the Blue Raiders -- but what happens if you add 30 pounds or more to each defensive lineman? What happens when you play a Big Ten team (or USC, for that matter)?
We'll know soon enough. But the players responsible for those blocks, cuts and carries swear that the gameplan will work once Penn State or Iowa come to town.
"We definitely believe we can run against them. We feel like we can do it against anyone," center D.J. Burris said, and he pointed to evidence that he believes supports his case: Middle Tennessee began overloading its defense to stop the run -- and it didn't work.
"We were running against nine guys in the box at times, and we were still getting it done," Burris said. "It's a matter of execution."
That part is true, and the Gophers say by reducing the complexity of the playbook, they have had more time to perfect how they run each play.
"Running the football can be hard against air if you're not fundamentally sound," quarterback Adam Weber pointed out. "It's all about flow and confidence. If you keep on creating that confidence and you've got those five guys up front and the running backs all working together, you can run against anyone. You might not pick up five yards a pop, but you can have success."
Besides, the Gophers' offensive line, despite its problems a year ago, it big enough to compete with Big Ten defenses. And they're closer than ever, they keep saying. "You could definitely tell even in spring ball, that this offensive line really bonded," Burris said. "There were times when we'd look at each other in the huddle and say, 'C'mon, let's get this going.' We're playing for each other, and you really take more of an ownership when that's the case."
So get used to the earth-bound Gophers. They'll throw when they have to, but "we're going to want to establish the run first and foremost against all of our opponents," said offensive coordinator Jeff Horton, who does the play-calling. "We're going to give it the chance to be successful and not get away from it too quick. I'm sure there are some games where we'll keep pounding and pounding and we might only get two or three yards at a crack, but we'll keep at it. We don't want to get away from what we can do."
That said, Horton added, there may be a game where the Gophers throw 67 times instead of run that many, as they did against the Blue Raiders. It's a difficult balance, to avoid abandoning the run when it's not eating up yardage the way it did in Tennessee. "We've got to be steady with it. We can't get greedy, don't think we've got to get big chunks real quick, don't think the big plays are always out there," Horton said. "I tell them, 'Hey, let's just get four yards. We get four yards every play, we're going to be OK. And as the play-caller, I've got to stick to that."