JIM MONE / AP Enlarge
ANN ARBOR - Minnesota's offensive game plan is as simple as A-B-C.
See Marion run. See Laurence run.
Watch the unbeaten Gophers have fun, as Marion and Laurence run, run, run.
"There's no better pair of backs in the country," Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said yesterday. "I don't know that there's ever been two better. I mean, these are great football players."
The talented tailback tandem Carr referred to are Marion Barber III and Laurence Maroney, who will lead No. 13 Minnesota against No. 14 Michigan Saturday in a key early Big Ten showdown at the Big House.
The Golden Gophers and Wolverines are both 2-0 in the conference and involved in a three-way logjam for first place, along with Wisconsin. Purdue is 1-0.
"This is the biggest game of the year and we're going to approach it like that," Michigan free safety Ryan Mundy said.
Maroney, a 5-11, 205-pound sophomore, leads the Big Ten in rushing, averaging 134 yards per game. Barber, a 5-11, 215-pound redshirt junior, is second, averaging 120.4 yards per game.
"They're both very powerful backs," Mundy said. "Having two guys like that in the same backfield is a real luxury."
Maroney ranks ninth nationally in rushing with 670 yards. He has five touchdowns and is averaging 6.8 yards per carry. Barber, who has started the first five games, ranks 11th nationally in rushing with 602 yards. He has seven touchdowns and a 5.7 average.
Barber gets most of his yards inside, while Maroney likes to get outside and turn the corner.
"I think Barber is a more come-at-you-type of guy," Michigan outside linebacker Roy Manning said. "Most likely he wants to run you over if he gets the chance. And Maroney is kind of a speedster.
"They're just a great 1-2 punch as far as running games and running backs go. They're both equally as dangerous."
Barber and Maroney are good friends who insist there is no tailback controversy, no jealousy and no animosity between
controversy, no jealousy and no animosity between
"We don't care who starts or who gets the most touchdowns," Maroney said. "That's not our main goal."
Their main goals are yards and touchdowns.
Barber and Maroney became just the third pair of Big Ten teammates to each rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season last year, and they're well on their way to doing it again.
Minnesota coach Glen Mason said his biggest concern is not getting his two backs in the game enough at the same time.
"It's not a matter of a 1 or a 2," he said. "They're both 1s."
A year ago Barber ran for 197 yards on 21 carries and a touchdown and Maroney added 81 yards on nine carries and two touchdowns as the Gophers piled up 424 rushing yards against the Wolverines.
The only thing that spared Michigan's defense from total embarrassment was the stirring comeback by its offense. The Wolverines rallied from a 28-7 deficit with 31 points in the fourth quarter en route to a 38-35 victory that saved their season.
"It was awful; it was embarrassing," Mundy said. "A sign of toughness of your defense is how well you stop the run, and we didn't stop the run at all in that game. They had something like 400-and-some yards rushing on us. That's definitely going to be a motivational tool for us during this week of practice."
Minnesota ranks third among 117 Division I-A teams in rushing with 323.4 yards per game, trailing only Texas (353.5) and Rice (327.5).
However, Michigan has the nation's stingiest run defense, allowing just 47.2 yards per game and 1.53 yards per attempt. The Wolverines have held three of their first five opponents to 33 yards or fewer on the ground.
"We definitely have a big challenge on our hands this week,'' Manning said. "Minnesota has a big-time running game and big-time backs. If we can't stop the run, I don't think we can win."
Michigan hasn't lost to Minnesota since 1986, winning 15 in a row. The Wolverines also have won 12 consecutive meetings against the Gophers at Michigan Stadium.
"We've got enough of a tradition here, a history here, that we take great pride in the way we play defense," said Carr, who is 7-0 against the Gophers. "So when you get an opportunity to play a team this talented, this good, I think it's exciting. I think this is a fun game."
QUICK HITS: Michigan receiver/punt returner Steve Breaston did not make the trip to Indiana last week and is questionable for the Minnesota game with an injured finger. "He's going to have some discomfort handling the football," Carr said. "But it is on his left hand, so he is going to secure the ball in his right hand, in most cases. The question will be: Can he catch the football without dropping it? If he's going to drop it, that's no good. So we'll just have to see in practice and see how he handles it." .●.●. Defensive end Jeremy Van Alstyne was supposed to miss the season with a knee injury, but he has made a remarkable comeback. He has begun practicing and may soon see game action. "We just have to see - the question would be the conditioning, all the things that he's missed," Carr said. "But in terms of the knee, it's fine. He's been given clearance to play." .●.●. Minnesota is the first ranked opponent Michigan has faced this season.
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