If there's one thing typical of a Glen Mason team, it's the running game

Aug. 29, 2005

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - If the Minnesota Gophers have been able to do one thing during Glen Mason's coaching tenure, it's run the football.

Since he arrived on campus in 1997, Mason has made it his mission to develop a powerful and successful running game, culminating last season when Marion Barber III and Laurence Maroney became the first pair of running backs in NCAA history to each rush for 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons.

That doesn't figure to change this season with Maroney and an experienced offensive line returning. But the Gophers know that if they are to finally get over the hump and join the Big Ten's elite, they need quarterback Bryan Cupito to have a standout season.

It all starts on Thursday night when the Gophers head to Tulsa to take on the Golden Hurricane.

"The passing game's going to have be the key factor to the run game this year," Maroney said. "It's going to have to keep the defense honest."

Too often last season, that didn't happen. In his first season as a starter, Cupito had solid numbers - 2,097 yards passing, 14 touchdowns and seven interceptions - but completed only 47.1 percent of his passes.

He threw just four touchdowns and four interceptions as the Gophers faded down the stretch, winding up a disappointing 7-5.

"I still think he had a good year last year for a first-year starter," quarterbacks coach Tony Petersen said. "But it's not what we needed him to do to accomplish what we wanted to accomplish."

Cupito acknowledged as much.

"When things started going bad, I kind of let them go bad," he said. "I just have to make sure that doesn't happen. If a play goes bad, we'll just go to the next play."

And this year, Cupito has a much better handle on the offense. His second year as the starter has made Cupito much more comfortable with the system and the speed of the game. Now he knows both what the play is when it is called, and why the coaches are calling it.

"I'm just seeing different looks, some audibles that I wouldn't have seen last year," Cupito said. "I think our passing game has improved so much over last year, which it needs to for us to be successful."

Without prompting, Mason said Monday that Cupito has been one of the most improved players in camp.

"Sometimes his supporting cast let him down last season, but he hung in there tough," Mason said, referring to a disappointing season from the receiving corps. "It's hard to play out there if you're thinking too much. He's not worrying about his basic assignments, he's taking it to a new level."

His teammates can see it.

"I think he's definitely more of a leader this year," offensive lineman Mark Setterstrom said. "He's stepped up his game a lot. This spring, more so than usual, he's watching a lot of film. ... I think with a year under his belt he'll be a lot more comfortable and take this team and take us to great things."

With a demanding schedule, that remains to be seen. The Gophers had doormats Northwestern and Illinois replaced by title-favorites Ohio State and Purdue on this season's conference schedule.

That means Cupito will have to improve if the Gophers are to finally make the move from a middling team in a powerhouse conference to one that has a legitimate shot at contending for the title.

"I'm more optimistic," Petersen said. "I think we have a chance to be a lot better team. Yeah, we have a tougher schedule in the Big Ten. ... That's the way it goes, those are the teams we have to play. If we're going to do that, I think we're better off on offense this year than we were last year and hopefully Bryan's play is going to be a big part of it."