Big Ten: Nick Tow-Arnett

Minnesota's second-half rally fell short as a mistake-prone offense made one too many in the closing minutes. The Big Ten fell to 1-1 in bowls with three more teams in action New Year's Day.

How the game was won: The teams combined for six turnovers, and Iowa State had four of them, but Minnesota committed the most damaging giveaway in the closing minutes as backup quarterback MarQueis Gray fumbled in the red zone. Minnesota's defense turned in a terrific performance, and quarterback Adam Weber had some nice moments at times, but the offense squandered too many scoring opportunities. Iowa State rode running back Alexander Robinson and a stout red-zone defense to victory.

Turning point: After taking over at its own 1-yard line, Minnesota drove downfield behind a revived offense. Coordinator Jedd Fisch effectively mixed personnel and play calls, and Gray had been stepping up as both a quarterback and a wide receiver. But on first-and-10 from the Iowa State 17-yard line, Gray coughed up the ball and the Cyclones recovered with 4:03 left. Iowa State then ran out the clock.

Stat of the game: Minnesota had seven drives reach Iowa State territory but only scored three times (one touchdown, two field goals).

[+] EnlargeKyle Theret
AP Photo/Matt YorkKyle Theret had two interceptions and a 40-yard reception on a fake punt.
Player of the game: For Iowa State, Robinson went for 140 rush yards on 23 carries. But I've got to give this to Minnesota safety Kyle Theret, who recorded two interceptions and had a 40-yard reception on a fake punt in the third quarter. The senior really stepped up in his final collegiate game.

Best call: Trailing 14-3 in the third quarter, Minnesota called a fake punt on fourth-and-4 from its own 37-yard line. Punter Blake Haudan found Theret, who raced 40-yards. The Gophers scored their first touchdown on the next play, as Weber found Nick Tow-Arnett.

What it means: Minnesota drops to 6-7 on a season that began with elevated expectations and an experienced roster. Athletic director Joel Maturi said earlier this week that Brewster is safe and will receive a contract extension. And though the team didn't look great on offense at times, it's not Brewster's fault that Gray fumbled. On the other hand, Mike Leach is available, right? The Gophers head into the offseason with questions on offense, and Weber and Gray will compete for the starting job this spring. There will be pressure on Brewster and his staff to win more than six games in 2010.

Big Ten picks: Week 11

November, 12, 2009
11/12/09
9:00
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Thanks to a 2-4 performance last week, I'm now south of 70 percent for the season, which is sort of like hitting below the Mendoza line. I'm sure my colleague Chris Low, who's doing better than 80 percent on picks, is laughing at me from his home in Knoxville. Last year's success seems like eons ago. And to top it off, two games this week are among the toughest picks of the season.

Here's a stab at better results.

Penn State 34, Indiana 17: The Nittany Lions start slow after last week's letdown and Indiana takes an early lead on a touchdown pass to standout wide receiver Tandon Doss. But with a BCS at-large berth still a decent possibility, Penn State turns it on in the second and third quarters as quarterback Daryll Clark and running back Evan Royster put up big numbers against the IU defense.

Wisconsin 31, Michigan 20: Some are calling for a blowout and I could see it that way, but Michigan has moved the football on most teams and will find running room with Carlos Brown and Brandon Minor. But Wisconsin running back John Clay and the powerful Badgers offensive line will once again take control in the second half and wear down Michigan's weak defense. Defensive ends Brandon Graham (Michigan) and O'Brien Schofield (Wisconsin) both have their moments.

Minnesota 24, South Dakota State 21: I'm a little worried about the Gophers after last week's lackluster first half. South Dakota State boasts a strong defense and a win against mighty Northern Iowa, and Minnesota's offense will struggle early. But the Gophers find a way on Senior Day and win their sixth game to get bowl eligible. Backup quarterback MarQueis Gray makes a big play or two, and tight end Nick Tow-Arnett hauls in two touchdowns from Adam Weber.

Michigan State 27, Purdue 26: I'll be honest, this game drove me nuts all week. Both quarterbacks are hot, and both defenses are inconsistent but boast star players. Michigan State has been pretty bad on the road, but the Spartans play well in November under Mark Dantonio. Purdue is playing very well in Big Ten play and boasts a lot of playmakers. This reminds me of 2007, when Michigan State needed a win at Ross-Ade and got one. The Spartans win on a Brett Swenson field goal.

Northwestern 24, Illinois 20: The Illini are playing looser and with more confidence, and they could certainly continue their win streak Saturday. But Northwestern almost always wins as a slight road underdog, and the Wildcats seem to be jelling on defense. Illinois quarterback Jacob Charest throws two touchdown passes, but a critical interception leads to Northwestern's game-winning drive. Quarterback Mike Kafka is now two weeks removed from a hamstring injury and will be more effective.

Ohio State 21, Iowa 10: The Hawkeyes keep this one close for a while as their opportunistic defense generates a turnover or two to set up the offense in good field position. But Ohio State's dominating defense proves to be the difference as Iowa redshirt freshman quarterback James Vandenberg struggles to move the ball in his first career start. Terrelle Pryor scores two second-half rushing touchdowns as the Buckeyes win to reach their first Rose Bowl since 1997.

Week 10 record: 2-4

Season record: 51-23 (.689)

Big Ten picks: Week 10

November, 5, 2009
11/05/09
9:00
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Who's going to win? Keep reading.

Iowa 27, Northwestern 17: Both teams tend to start slow, so expect a close game for most of the way. Northwestern quarterback Mike Kafka plays and does some good things in the second and third quarters, but Iowa once again takes control in the fourth, when it has dominated and Northwestern has struggled this season. Both defenses are improved and the Wildcats always save their best for Iowa, but the Hawkeyes prevail behind Ricky Stanzi and Derrell Johnson-Koulianos.

Wisconsin 28, Indiana 16: I don't know how much the Hoosiers have left in the tank after back-to-back crushing defeats. Plus, Wisconsin has totally dominated Indiana under head coach Bret Bielema and seems to be getting better on defense as the season goes along. The Hoosiers' standout wide receivers make plays early, but running back John Clay and the Wisconsin defense led by O'Brien Schofield and Chris Borland blossom in the second half.

Michigan State 31, Western Michigan 10: It's an absolute must-win for Mark Dantonio's team, and they will be prepared to play. Quarterback Kirk Cousins picks apart the Broncos secondary as wide receivers Blair White and Keshawn Martin turn in big performances. Michigan State's defense keeps Tim Hiller in check and keeps its bowl hopes alive heading into a crucial game at Purdue.

Minnesota 30, Illinois 24: Both offenses got some much needed confidence last week and will continue to make plays early in this one. Adam Weber turns in another good performance and finds tight end Nick Tow-Arnett for two touchdown passes. Illinois runs the ball well with backs Mikel LeShoure and Jason Ford, but Minnesota's defense clamps down in the red zone as the Gophers become bowl-eligible.

Michigan 37, Purdue 31: I'm hesitant to pick the Wolverines, but they're in a must-win game against a Purdue team that totally imploded last week. Plus, running back Brandon Minor is getting healthier, and he can change the game. Both offenses make plays, but Minor and teammate Carlos Brown lead a potent rushing attack that proves to be the difference as the Wolverines get bowl-eligible.

Penn State 21, Ohio State 17: Expect a defensive struggle early as two of the nation's premier units take the field in Happy Valley. The game closely resembles the Iowa-Michigan State clash, as defense rules until the final 10 minutes, when both offenses come alive. Quarterbacks Daryll Clark and Terrelle Pryor both make plays, but Clark's leadership in a more cohesive Nittany Lions offense proves to be the difference.

Week 9 record: 4-2

Season record: 49-19 (.721)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Indiana head coach Bill Lynch and his Michigan State counterpart Mark Dantonio both sent in plays to the Big Ten office for review after some questionable officiating in their respective games during the weekend.

The replay overturn of Terrance Turner's touchdown catch against Iowa has drawn by far the most attention, as I can see by checking my inbox or reading colleague Pat Forde's Dash today. From seeing the replays multiple times on YouTube, it's an extremely close call, but it's not obvious that Turner's foot touches the ground before his knee hits out of bounds. Still, since the call on the field was a touchdown, a lot of us were surprised to see the replay officials had enough conclusive evidence for a reversal.

"I have great confidence that [the league will] handle it appropriately," Lynch said.

Dantonio took issue with several plays in the Minnesota game, including a fumble recovery by the Spartans that was overturned by replay and ruled an incomplete pass. On the next play, Minnesota scored a touchdown on a wild deflection from Nick Tow-Arnett to Duane Bennett.

Dantonio said he has received some responses from the league but nothing in writing.

"We have to focus on the things we can control," he said. "There are some things we cannot control. We have to keep our composure and play through those situations. You have to focus on the missed opportunities.”

Lynch is taking a similar approach with his team. He didn't even bring up the Turner play during Monday's practice.

"I don’t like reviewing things that were out of our control because in some ways, it gives your kids an excuse," he said. "I think there were 173 plays in that game, and we had an opportunity in each of those 173 plays."
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Kudos and criticisms from around the league. Remember, players or coaches acknowledged in helmet tickers or Players of the Week don't appear here.

 
 Andrew Weber/US Presswire
 Illinois' Jason Ford rushed for 128 yards and one touchdown in Saturday's victory.
Thumbs up, Illinois RBs Mikel LeShoure and Jason Ford: LeShoure has quietly had a solid season and continued to produce Saturday against Michigan, while Ford joined in the act as well. The two sophomore running backs combined for 278 rush yards and two touchdowns as the Fighting Illini notched their first Big Ten win and ran all over the Wolverines.

Thumbs down, Purdue's offense: The unit had a complete meltdown at Wisconsin after several solid performances. It wasn't just the turnovers that held Purdue back this time. Quarterbacks Joey Elliott and Caleb TerBush combined to complete only 27 percent of their passes, a statistic impacted by a ton of drops by their wide receivers.

Thumbs up, Chris Borland: The Wisconsin linebacker deserves consideration for Big Ten freshman of the year. He has meant that much to the Badgers' turnaround this fall. Borland continued to produce in his first career start at outside linebacker, forcing a fumble and recovering two fumbles against Purdue to earn Big Ten co-defensive player of the week honors.

Thumbs down, Greg Robinson: After an impressive performance in the season opener against Western Michigan, Robinson's unit has declined sharply. I heard a lot about improved communication and better cohesion before the season, but the defense endures multiple major breakdowns in every game. Whether it's pass defense against Notre Dame and Penn State or run defense against Illinois, the defense has been a disaster and it falls in his lap.

Thumbs up, Jedd Fisch: The Minnesota offensive coordinator produced his best game plan in his first game without his best player, wide receiver Eric Decker. Fisch was extremely creative and aggressive, and he received big plays from Duane Bennett, Nick Tow-Arnett, Da'Jon McKnight, Brandon Green and Troy Stoudermire.

Thumbs down, Minnesota's discipline: The Gophers notched a big win against Michigan State, but their 17 penalties tied a Big Ten single-game record set by Michigan State way back in 1957. It seemed like flags were flying on almost every play, and Minnesota won't win many more games if it doesn't improve its discipline.

Thumbs up, Penn State QB Daryll Clark: He should be the frontrunner for Big Ten offensive player of the year, with Wisconsin's John Clay as his only legitimate challenger. Clark turned in another strong performance against Northwestern, passing for 274 yards and a touchdown and scoring a rushing touchdown as well.

Thumbs down, Big Ten replay officials: Replay is supposed to ensure that the officiating crews get it right in these games, but the folks in the booth had a rough Saturday. The term "indisputable video evidence" definitely seemed a bit hazy in the Indiana-Iowa and Michigan State-Minnesota games.

Thumbs up, Terry Hawthorne: The Illinois freshman cornerback made arguably the play of the game against Michigan when he chased down wide receiver Roy Roundtree at the Illini 1-yard line. Illinois stopped Michigan on four straight plays and kept the Wolverines' lead at only six points, setting the stage for a second-half surge.

Thumbs down, Northwestern's fourth-quarter performance: The Wildcats have owned the fourth quarter in past seasons, but they are struggling in crunch time in 2009. After allowing 21 fourth-quarter points to Penn State in Saturday's loss, the Wildcats have been outscored 72-44 in the final 15 minutes.

And, for the first time ever ...

Thumbs up and thumbs down, Iowa QB Ricky Stanzi: Just having a little fun with this one, as Stanzi showed both his best and his worst on Saturday against Indiana. He threw a career high five interceptions, four in the third quarter, but once again responded in the fourth with two huge touchdown passes to notch his first career 300-yard passing performance and lift Iowa to another huge win.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

I hope I wasn't the only one scratching my head after watching Minnesota's final touchdown in its 42-34 win over Michigan State on Saturday night.

In a play now being called the Immaculate Deflection, quarterback Adam Weber threw a pass to leaping tight end Nick Tow-Arnett. Michigan State cornerback Chris L. Rucker delivered a huge hit on Tow-Arnett, who lost the ball into the air as he hit the ground. Gophers running back Duane Bennett grabbed the ball and raced untouched to the end zone.

Here's the response I received from a Big Ten spokesman who had talked with coordinator of football officials Bill Carollo.

"If a receiver catches the ball and then hits the ground, the receiver must maintain possession for it to be an official catch. If a receiver catches the ball, hits the ground and the ball pops up in the air and it hits the ground, that’s an incomplete pass. If a receiver catches the ball, hits the ground and the ball pops up in the air, a defensive player can grab the ball for an interception. And if a receiver catches the ball, hits the ground and the ball pops up in the air, an offensive player can grab the ball and then it counts as a reception for the second player [not the first player]."



Is your head spinning?

In this case, Tow-Arnett didn't maintain possession as he hit the ground, but since the ball didn't hit the ground, either, it was still possible for Bennett to make the reception and advance the ball downfield. The rules for fumbles don't apply until an official reception is made, which didn't happen until Bennett caught the ball.

Here's the NCAA rule on what constitutes an official reception:

Airborne receiver A85 grasps a forward pass and in the process of going to the ground, first contacts the ground with his left foot as he falls to the ground inbounds. Immediately upon A85 hitting the ground, the ball comes loose and touches the ground. RULING: Incomplete pass. An airborne receiver must maintain control of the ball while going to the ground in the process of completing a catch.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

I just got off the phone with Minnesota quarterback Adam Weber, who tied his career high with five touchdown passes in a 42-34 win against Michigan State. None of those five scores was as memorable -- or as odd -- as a 59-yarder to running back Duane Bennett, who grabbed the ball after it popped out of tight end Nick Tow Arnett's hands.

Here's Weber's take on the play.

"It was third-and-17, third-and-crazy, and we knew they were going to blitz us, we didn't know which side they were going to come from," Weber told me. "We drew something up on the sideline with our running back [Bennett], and I was looking for him for a little flair up the middle. Nick opened up in my vision, but he made an amazing catch and got knocked pretty hard.

"The ball's been going the other way so much this season. It was nice to finally see the ball bounce our way for once."

Did Weber think Tow-Arnett was down?

"I just saw him get clocked and I thought it was a fumble at first," Weber said. "And then I saw the ball pop up and then Duane was running down. It was one of those crazy things where you give yourself an opportunity, who knows what can happen?"

Minnesota gave wide receiver Eric Decker the game ball following the victory. A fluke foot injury last week ended Decker's college career, and he will undergo surgery on Wednesday.

"Everyone has so much respect for Eric on this team with everything that he's done," said Weber, Decker's roommate. "We wanted to do something special for him, and we figured the best way we could do that was to play a great game and give him the game ball. It was very emotional, very happy, a great moment that Eric was able to share with the whole team. We started chanting his name and we were able to give him the ball.

"It was just one of those special moments that you'll probably remember for the rest of your life."
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

A Halloween filled with surprises in the Big Ten ended with the most bizarre game of the season.

Minnesota held off Michigan State 42-34 to provide a big boost to its bowl hopes and energize a season that had lost steam following consecutive blowout losses and the season-ending injury to star wide receiver Eric Decker. The Golden Gophers not only showed they could win without Decker, but they had their best offensive performance of the season against a formidable Michigan State defense.

Now, let's get to the utter wackiness of this game.

Here's a few things to chew on:
  • Michigan State fell behind 14-0 without running an offensive play.
  • Minnesota won despite committing 17 penalties for 157 yards.
  • The game featured four touchdowns of 59 yards or longer.
  • Minnesota averaged 12.6 yards a play despite entering the game averaging a league-worst 5.1 yards per play.

It was fitting that the final score came when Gophers running back Duane Bennett caught a ball that popped in the air following a Nick Tow-Arnett reception and raced to the end zone. The play, which reminded some of the Immaculate Reception, put Minnesota ahead by eight with 6:04 remaining.

Just a hunch here, but Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio won't be dressing up as an official for Halloween next year. After voicing his displeasure with two controversial calls in last week's loss to Iowa, Dantonio undoubtedly won't be pleased with several very, very questionable rulings in this one. Big Ten coordinator of football officials Bill Carollo will have a tough time reviewing this game.

Gophers quarterback Adam Weber passed for 416 yards and five touchdowns in the game, while Bennett and Tow-Arnett both caught two touchdowns. Credit Gophers offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch for an amazingly creative game plan, which would have put up more points if not for all the dumb penalties.

As for the Spartans, I felt they were the nation's best 4-4 team entering the game. But at some point, you are what you are, and Michigan State sits at 4-5 and in major danger of missing a bowl game. Michigan State struggled in the first half and endured several costly injuries, including a concussion to running back Larry Caper. Wide receiver Keshawn Martin exploded for two long touchdowns, but the defense really struggled for the most part. The Spartans need to win the next two weeks against Western Michigan and Purdue to have a chance at a bowl.

It's a huge win for Tim Brewster's crew in front of an electric crowd that featured several creative costumes. Minnesota really needed this, no matter how bizarre it turned out to be.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

In a conference starved for offensive stars, Minnesota wide receiver Eric Decker shined the brightest during the first part of the season.

He caught 43 passes for 639 yards in his first five games and drew some well-deserved national attention after a gutsy performance in Minnesota's loss to Cal on Sept. 19. For a Gophers offense going through a lot of transition this year, Decker was the one constant.
 
 Jack Rendulich/Icon SMI
 Minnesota's Eric Decker will miss the rest of the regular season with a strained left foot.


And now he'll be sidelined for the rest of the regular season with a strained left foot that may require surgery. Decker, who missed time late last season with a high ankle sprain, sustained the injury during Saturday's loss to No. 17 Ohio State.

You can't sugarcoat the significance of this loss for the Gophers.

Minnesota's offense ranks last in the Big Ten in both total yards (292.8 ypg) and rushing yards (105.9 ypg) and 10th in scoring (21.1 ppg). The Gophers' new pro-style system hasn't clicked consistently, as the offensive line is struggling and junior quarterback Adam Weber seems to be regressing.

Decker deserves to finish his spectacular college career in a bowl game. But will he get the chance?

Minnesota needs to win at least two of its final four games to reach the postseason. The Gophers begin a three-game homestand Saturday night against Michigan State (Big Ten Network, 8 p.m. ET) before hosting Illinois and South Dakota State. Though they should be favored in the latter two contests, they need to find some offense in a hurry.

The offensive line needs to protect Weber better, and wide receivers like Troy Stoudermire and Brandon Green have to step up. Tight end Nick Tow-Arnett has done his part, but Decker had 32 more receptions than any other Gophers wideout despite a drop in production the last three games.

An inconsistent run game also needs to improve, which won't be easy against Michigan State. Running backs Duane Bennett, DeLeon Eskridge and Kevin Whaley all have had their moments, but Minnesota lacks a bell cow in the backfield.

The Gophers are sticking with Weber as the starting quarterback, but they can't forget about talented freshman MarQueis Gray.

Decker could have pursued a pro baseball career after being drafted in June by the hometown Twins, but he returned to serve as a co-captain and set more records. He owns team records for career receptions, career receiving yardage, career 100-yard receiving games, single-season receptions and consecutive 100-yard games.

"It’s cumulative right now, all 11 guys on offense have to step up," head coach Tim Brewster said. "I really think he’s the most complete wide receiver in college football today. You don’t just replace that guy too easily. We’ll be fine. It’s kind of our mindset. Next man up. Our guys are going to respond well."

We'll find out on Saturday night.

Big Ten mailblog

October, 23, 2009
10/23/09
4:30
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Bring your rain gear to the games Saturday.

Joel from Columbus, Ohio, writes: Adam, in your best case scenario for OSU, if the Buckeyes win out, doesn't that assure themselves a spot in the Rose Bowl? They don't need Iowa to lose if they win out, because they have the head-to-head tiebreaker over them.Just like Penn State getting the Rose Bowl nod last year.

Adam Rittenberg: Yes, that would be correct because Michigan State would have a worse overall record (9-3) than Ohio State (10-2) because of the two nonleague losses. As long as Ohio State doesn't fall to New Mexico State -- highly unlikely -- the Buckeyes would go to the Rose Bowl.


Brad from Philadelphia writes: What if PSU wins out, OSU wins out, and Iowa only loses to OSU. That would make all three 7-1 and each team beat one of the other 2 teams?The head-to-head would be a tie so does it go to overall record? If so, is OSU eliminated because of the loss to USC? But PSU and Iowa are still tied. Then what? BCS standings?

Adam Rittenberg: If I'm reading the Big Ten tiebreaker procedures correctly, Iowa would go to the Rose Bowl in this situation. Item 5c reads: "If three teams are still tied, and one of the three teams is eliminated through the percentage basis of all games played, the remaining two teams shall revert to the two-team tie procedure." So with Ohio State out of the running because of the overall record, Penn State and Iowa would go to the regular tiebreaker and the Hawkeyes hold the head-to-head victory, so they would go to Pasadena.


Teddy from Decatur, Ill., writes: Adam, what do you think the chances of Illinois snagging Brian Kelly the coach from Cincinnati are? I mean Ron Guenther (the Illini AD) can get a good look at him when he comes to us on the 3rd of December. I know Guenther is usually loyal to his coaches but c'mon, this is pathetic.

Adam Rittenberg: A couple of things, Teddy. It's still a bit premature to say Zook will be finished at Illinois. The school still owes him a lot of money, and perhaps more importantly, the school isn't in great shape to make a coaching change. Illinois' chancellor resigned earlier this week in the wake of a major admissions scandal that also forced the resignation of the university president and six trustees. So the leadership of the university is very much in flux, which could hinder a major coaching change. As to Brian Kelly, I highly doubt he's going to Illinois. Simply put, Kelly can hold out for a much better job, and he's got a pretty good one right now.


(Read full post)

Cal finally gives it away

September, 19, 2009
9/19/09
2:01
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


MINNEAPOLIS -- After going two and a half games without a turnover, Cal finally gave one away.

And while no turnovers are easy to watch, Cal's first giveaway had to be especially frustrating for head coach Jeff Tedford. Cal held Minnesota to three-and-out on the first possession of the second half, but a short punt hit Cal's Charles Satchell and Minnesota's Nick Tow-Arnett recovered.

The Bears were one of six FBS teams that entered Saturday without a turnover on the season.

With a great chance to grab momentum, Minnesota mirrored Cal and give the ball back as Hayo Carpenter fumbled in Bears territory.

On the plus side for Minnesota, senior wideout Eric Decker recored his 200th career reception. Decker broke Ron Johnson's school record for receptions with his second touchdown catch in the first half.

It's game day at TCF Bank Stadium

September, 19, 2009
9/19/09
11:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


MINNEAPOLIS -- Greetings from the Big Ten's newest stadium, which definitely lives up to the hype.

Minnesota finally has a real home stadium, but whether the friendly surroundings pay off today remains to be seen. The Gophers face an enormous test in eighth-ranked California, led by Heisman Trophy candidate Jahvid Best at running back.

For the first time in my journalism career, I'm happy to provide a weather forecast for a Minnesota home game (instead of the standard room temperature joke at the Metrodome). It looks like a gorgeous day, with temperatures around 70 degrees at kickoff, working their way up to 77 during the fourth quarter.

A couple of personnel notes for Minnesota: cornerback Marcus Sherels (ankle) isn't expected to play, and Dom Alford will start at left tackle over Matt Stommes.

THREE KEYS FOR CALIFORNIA

1. Stay awake. Head coach Jeff Tedford hates hearing about how the early kickoff last year against Maryland doomed his team, which looked utterly lifeless in College Park. A strong start on offense, especially from quarterback Kevin Riley, would prove the Bears are ready this time and could take the crowd out of the game.

2. Find Eric Decker on every play. The Gophers senior wide receiver has been the team's only consistent offensive weapon so far. Talented Bears cornerback Syd'Quan Thompson likely will be assigned to Decker (the game's best matchup, in my opinion), but he could use some safety help against the Biletnikoff Award candidate.

3. Pressure quarterback Adam Weber. Cal ranks sixth nationally in sacks (4.5 spg), and the Gophers' offensive line is still adjusting to a brand-new system. Weber will make mistakes under pressure from time to time, so Cal should take an aggressive approach with defensive end Ernest Owusu and others.

THREE KEYS FOR MINNESOTA

1. Make Riley win the game. Minnesota's linebackers have been fabulous so far, but Best and Shane Vereen can take over a game with their big-play ability. The Gophers need to load up the box and force Riley to make tough throws. Riley has been extremely efficient this season, but Minnesota can't let Cal's running backs take over.

2. Diversify the offense. Decker can't beat a team like Cal by himself, and he'll need help from his fellow wideouts, tight end Nick Tow-Arnett and running backs Duane Bennett and DeLeon Eskridge. This needs to be the game where wideout Hayo Carpenter becomes a difference maker for the Gophers.

3. Make plays on special teams. The Gophers rank among the top 20 nationally in both kickoff and punt returns, and sophomore Troy Stoudermire can be a game-changer Saturday. Stoudermire should give Minnesota's offense good field position, and the Gophers need continued excellence from punter Dan Orseske and kicker Eric Ellestad.

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