IT WAS evident on Minnesota's opening drive last Saturday, as he darted through the nation's top-ranked rushing defense for 36 yards on his first four carries, that Laurence Maroney was going to have a very big day. All afternoon the 5'11", 210-pound junior burst through seams in the line, sidestepped tacklers and broke into the secondary. Purdue defensive coordinator Brock Spack resorted to stacking the box with as many as nine defenders but could contrive neither a way to penetrate the Golden Gophers' athletic line nor a scheme that could contain Maroney once he got beyond it. Maroney finished with 217 yards on 46 carries, both career highs.
Minnesota (4-0) needed every one of those yards to eke out a 42-35 double-overtime victory over the 11th-ranked Boilermakers, a win that went a long way toward dispelling a well-earned reputation for choking in big games. The Gophers, who hadn't beaten a ranked team in nearly three years and had lost seven straight to Purdue, have gone undefeated in nonconference play in each of the last two seasons but suffered late-game collapses against Michigan in consecutive Octobers that helped derail their Big Ten title hopes. There were plenty of chances for Minnesota to fold on Saturday, especially after the Gophers fell behind 28-20 when Boilermakers linebacker Dan Bick intercepted a Bryan Cupito pass and returned it 29 yards for a touchdown with 5:45 left. What was Minnesota coach Glen Mason thinking? "More than anything," he said afterward, "I was dreading going to the locker room and giving them that talk that I've had to give too many times."
But the Gophers avoided losing their sixth Big Ten opener in Mason's nine seasons largely because of Maroney, who leads the country in rushing with 174.5 yards per game, and a line that may be the best in the Big Ten. The Gophers' linemen are undersized (they average 292 pounds from tackle to tackle), but they're strong and extremely quick. "We have to be fast to stay in front of Laurence," says All-America center Greg Eslinger, who may have run for as many yards as Maroney on Saturday, so often did he pull to lead the back on sweeps. The Purdue defense was so concerned with Maroney--he also caught five passes for 59 yards--that Minnesota often used him as a decoy on play-action passes, as well as on Cupito's keeper with 1:34 remaining for the two-point conversion that sent the game into overtime. "I know I'm the one who's got to get the offense started, that everyone's looking to me to step it up," says Maroney, who has carried 113 times for 698 yards in four games.
Such a role is a far cry from 2003 and '04, when he split carries with Marion Barber; the two are the only teammates in NCAA history to rush for 1,000 yards each in consecutive seasons. Last April the Dallas Cowboys selected Barber in the fourth round of the NFL draft. Maroney added 10 pounds in the off-season to prepare for the increased workload he's getting this fall. There is talk in the Twin Cities that anything less than a 2,000-yard season will be a failure for him. "Who's to say he couldn't have run for 2,000 last year?" says offensive coordinator Mitch Browning, noting that in '04, Barber and Maroney combined for more than 2,600 rushing yards.
The Gophers now begin a grueling four-game stretch, with road dates against Penn State and Michigan and home games against No. 17 Wisconsin and No. 8 Ohio State. Nevertheless, Minnesota could be ready to contend for its first Big Ten championship since 1967. "I'm not about to make any predictions," says Eslinger. "Laurence has given us a lot of momentum. We're hoping to keep it going." --Mark Beech