MINNEAPOLIS (AP) – The Minnesota football program bottomed out again this season, with the firing of head coach Tim Brewster and a losing streak that reached nine games by the first weekend in November.
As school officials search for Brewster’s replacement, however, the players who will return to the program next fall have a head start — at least in terms of positive vibes — on the rebuilding project.
The Gophers will bring back plenty of starters and some potential stars, and fourth-quarter rallies to beat Illinois and Iowa in the final two games have given Minnesota a mini-dose of momentum after a bunch of lopsided losses.
“It’s not how you start the season. It’s how you finish,” said MarQueis Gray, who spent most of his time at wide receiver this year but is expected to take over for Adam Weber as the quarterback in 2011. “We sent the seniors off with a great win. Hopefully, we can continue on next year.”
The 27-24 victory over 24th-ranked Iowa to recapture the Floyd of Rosedale Trophy at TCF Bank Stadium was the perfect way for Weber and the 14 other departing seniors to go out. Weber started all 50 games of his career, but Gray — who will be a junior next season — will bring plenty of experience to the job.
He caught 42 passes for 587 yards and five touchdowns and carried the ball 23 times for 110 yards and a score against the Hawkeyes on Saturday. Gray has attempted only 23 passes in his two-year career, but he’ll come with plenty of confidence next season. His grinding 7-yard gain on third-and-4 from the Iowa 39 gave the Gophers the opportunity to drain the clock and seal the victory.
“I was just thinking, ‘I can’t be stopped again,”‘ Gray said, reflecting on a third-quarter third-and-2 try when he was stopped at the line to prompt a punt.
Jeff Horton, the interim fill-in for Brewster, likely won’t be retained unless the permanent replacement decides to keep him as an offensive assistant. But Horton said Saturday he’d like to see Gray used as the catalyst for some sort of a spread or pistol offense to maximize his running ability.
“I think he’ll be a special player,” Horton said.
The Gophers started as a spread-style team when Brewster was hired in 2007, but he ditched the system and fired offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar after two seasons and tried to refocus on power running and play-action passes. The win over Iowa, including 382 yards of total offense against one of the nation’s stingiest defenses, was precisely what Brewster had in mind, though it came far too late. Gray and every other player interviewed Saturday naturally gave Horton a raving review when asked if they’d like to see him stay on the next staff.
“I love of them all, especially coach Horton,” Gray said. “If he’s here, that’s fine with me.”
The next coach will inherit a very young team. The offensive line will lose three full-time starters, but left tackle Ed Olson started nine games as a freshman. Fullback Jon Hoese will be hard to replace, but tight end Eric Lair emerged as a legitimate receiver this year and wide receiver Da’Jon McKnight had a breakout season with 750 yards and 10 touchdowns.
DeLeon Eskridge and Duane Bennett will both be seniors next season, but the competition at running back for a team that ranked next-to-last in the Big Ten on the ground this year will be more stiff than that with Donnell Kirkwood, Devon Wright and Lamonte Edwards expected to challenge as well.
“Players who stepped up today, we expect them to do the same thing throughout each week next year,” Gray said Saturday.
The defense will only lose two starters, safeties Kyle Theret and Ryan Collado. Nine returning starters isn’t necessarily a good thing after a season in which the Gophers were unable to stop South Dakota — let alone Ohio State. But the group was sharp against Iowa, and the experience can only help.
One intriguing player is Troy Stoudermire, a solid kickoff returner who was moved from wide receiver to cornerback at midseason.
“After I came back to play on defense, I told them you would see no more negativity from me,” Stoudermire said. “I was going to do whatever I could to help this team win.”
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