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Offense regains its footing

Gophers now take ‘air show’ to Michigan State

McClatchy Newspapers

MINNEAPOLIS — Remember all the preseason chatter about how the Gophers football team, in the absence of a star running back and All-America offensive linemen, intended to alter the blueprint and feature its passing game in 2006?

It hasn’t quite worked out that way, but the Gophers showed Saturday in a 63-26 rout of Indiana that they are capable of airing it out if the situation is ripe.

Facing a Hoosiers defense that was determined to stop the run, Minnesota’s coaching staff devised a creative game plan that included a heavy dose of passes early and several new wrinkles that made Indiana’s players look woefully confused.

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The result was a banner performance by senior quarterback Bryan Cupito and his receiving corps, which should bode well as the Gophers prepare for a Michigan State defense that has been awful against the pass this season.

Michigan State is ranked 96th nationally in pass defense and has given up a staggering 28 touchdown passes, the most of all 119 teams in Division I-A.

Michigan State’s lame-duck coaching staff now will have even more to prepare for after watching tape of the Gophers’ offense against Indiana, which included a five-wide-receiver set on one play.

"We wanted to throw the ball a lot, and we had to commit to the passing game more in general,’’ senior receiver Logan Payne said. "That's what we did. Our passing game has been kind of simple [in the past] because our running game has been working so well. Now we’re not running the ball as well, so we had to put more stuff in our passing game.’’

Many thought that would be the case all season, but going into Saturday’s game Cupito was actually attempting fewer passes per game than last season. He averaged 26.3 pass attempts in the first nine games, compared to 27 pass attempts per game in 2005.

He had thrown 26 passes by halftime Saturday, completing 17 of them for 304 yards and three touchdowns.

"They told us we were going to add some things (to the passing game in practice),’’" center Tony Brinkhaus said. "I thought we had a great game plan coming in.’’

The Gophers opened the game with a 58-yard pass play from Cupito to Payne, and then stayed with the game plan. Cupito attempted passes on eight of the first 11 plays as the Gophers built a quick 14-0 lead.

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Cupito finished with one of the best games of his career, completing 22 of 33 passes for 378 yards and four touchdowns.

"It was one of those days where everything went well for us,’’ he said. "We knew we had some play-action passes that we could really use. I think we had great play calls at the right time.’’

Gophers coach Glen Mason said the coaching staff expected the Hoosiers to stack their defense against the run, which they did fairly effectively against the Gophers last season. With the safety up in the box, the Gophers capitalized on opportunities down the field in the passing game.

Of Cupito’s 22 completions, 13 went for at least 10 yards. Ernie Wheelwright hauled in wide-open touchdown catches of 64 and 37 yards.

"It’s execution,’’ Mason said. "The ball was on the mark and the guy caught it. The game is not that difficult.’’

It certainly looked textbook. Cupito repeatedly froze the defense with his play-action fakes and was accurate on most of his passes. The line gave good protection (no sacks), and the receivers were able to create separation from the cornerbacks (although there were still too many dropped balls). It didn't hurt that Indiana’s secondary looked completely disorganized and unable to make adjustments on the fly.

When it was over, the Gophers had scored their most points in a Big Ten game in 90 years and had found new life on offense.

""It seems like it’s been a long time since we’ve had this happen,’’ Cupito said.

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Now the question is, can they duplicate it Saturday against Michigan State?

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