Gophers open season against rebuilding Tulsa

Friday, August 29th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) _ The Minnesota Gophers insist they're not looking past Tulsa this weekend.

But they do acknowledge there's no excuse for not beating a rebuilding Golden Hurricane team that finished 1-11 last season.

``It's something we don't take lightly,'' senior quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq said. ``Just because we don't play the No. 1 team or something like that in the preseason doesn't mean it's a guaranteed win.''

Tulsa on Saturday is the first of four soft nonconference games on the Gophers' 2003 schedule. Like last season, the Gophers are hoping to take advantage of the weak lineup and build momentum heading into the Big Ten season.

``If we can go into the conference games 4-0, it'll be a big boost for us,'' said Abdul-Khaliq, a candidate for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award.

This time, though, they'd like to avoid stalling against Big Ten competition. The Gophers finished 3-5 in conference play, yet earned a berth in the Music City Bowl, where they scored a surprising victory over Arkansas.

With Abdul-Khaliq and their trio of running backs healthy again, the defense a year older and the memory of the bowl victory on their minds, the Gophers seem to have everything in place to make a run at the Big Ten title this year.

But first on the list is Tulsa, which opened the 2002 season with seven straight losses. The Gophers, meanwhile, have won eight consecutive home openers.

It'll be quite a test for the Golden Hurricane and rookie head coach Steve Kragthorpe.

``We've got our hands full. There's no question about it,'' Kragthorpe said.

Kragthorpe, a former Buffalo Bills assistant, was hired in December to replace Keith Burns, who resigned under pressure Dec. 2 after winning just two games in the previous two seasons.

He makes his Tulsa coaching debut with junior quarterback James Kilian at the helm. Kilian, who played in six games last season, inherited the starting duties when Tyler Gooch transferred to Oklahoma in June to pursue a baseball career.

Kilian has played in 13 career games with two starts.

The lone bright spot of Tulsa's offense has been running back Eric Richardson. Last year, Richardson, who's led the team in rushing the past two seasons, fell just 43 yards shy of becoming the first 1,000-yard rusher for Tulsa since 1997.

But rushing is also a strength of Minnesota's. Saturday will mark the return of sophomore tailback Marion Barber III, who received a medical redshirt last season with a hamstring injury after an impressive freshman year.

Barber, bruising fullback Thomas Tapeh and 1,000-yard rusher Terry Jackson II, last year's surprise in the backfield, should give Minnesota one of the best running games in the nation.

``A three-headed monster,'' Kragthorpe said.

The Gophers' passing game _ wideout Aaron Hosack caught 29 passes for 649 yards and Ben Utecht is considered one of the top tight ends in the country _ isn't too shabby either.

The only setback so far has been the loss of wide receiver Paris Hamilton, a junior college transfer, to a season-ending knee injury.

But Gophers coach Glen Mason says the Gophers were already preparing for the possibility of playing without Hamilton.

``We never had him,'' Mason said. ``This sounds cold, but it's less of a loss because we haven't had him. We really haven't been counting on having him.''

Even without Hamilton, the Gophers figure to have a strong offense to go along with an improved defensive line and a pass defense that was tops in the Big Ten last year.

Not so encouraging for a Tulsa team in search of confidence. But Kragthorpe remains optimistic.

``I'm a big believer that confidence is a byproduct of preparation and I think our players have done a super job of preparing themselves throughout the course of the last eight months,'' he said.

``I'm a very positive guy. I'm an optimist, otherwise I wouldn't have taken this job.''