Early look at the Gophers

Spotlight on Minnesota
Last season's record: 7-6 overall, 3-5 in the Big Ten
Current record: 2-0 (wins over Syracuse and Air Force)
It hasn't always been pretty, but the Gophers have made plays when they needed to, which is the main reason why head coach Tim Brewster's crew comes into Saturday's matchup against No. 8 Cal still undefeated.
Minnesota began the year with a 23-20 overtime victory over a Greg Paulus led Syracuse team and followed that effort with a 20-13 win over Air Force in the first ever game at the program's brand new on-campus stadium.
Picked to finish around the bottom tier of the Big Ten conference this season, Minnesota doesn't possess top-tier talent across the board in comparison to some of their other conference mates but as head coach Jeff Tedford has already noted, the Gophers play hard for an entire 60 minutes.
Led by the playmaking ability of wide receiver Eric Decker, the Gophers might not "wow" you on tape but an undefeated record is an undefeated record, which means this team has the capability to taking care of business when the time comes.
Minnesota outgained Syracuse offensively in the season opener (360-257) but the opposite was true against Air Force (386-327). In fact, the Gophers actually went into the fourth quarter trailing Air Force 10-3, before running off 17 consecutive points in the final frame to seal the victory.
Minnesota has also turned the ball over three times this season and has been called for 18 penalties. Minnesota is also a combined 9-of-28 on third downs offensively in its two games and is averaging 4.0 yards per carry.
MinneapolisStarTribune: Sit-down with Coach Tedford
MinneapolisStarTribune: Not everything is perfect about brand new TCF Stadium
MinneapolisStarTribune: Cal ready to hit the road
What Coach Tedford is saying …
… on early impressions of Minnesota: "You can't get a lot out of the Air Force game because things are so different but they are big, physical, athletic, well-coached. A good football team."
… on the decision to leave Thursday for Minnesota: "We are going to try it. Some (teams) do it and you never know (if it's better) until you try it. We are going to give it a shot to help us not be so hurried. We always set our body to the (game time) but we want to see what it is like."
… on any changes to routine by leaving early: "It doesn't. It's about a 3-hour difference. Normally we practice in the afternoon (on Thursday) but we'll practice around 12:30."
… on whether Cal will do anything different on Friday than usual: "No. We'll have a walk-through there, which is around game-time on Friday morning. We'll have our meetings that we typically have at the hotel, so there won't be anything different."
… on this team's capability to handle road situations: "We'll find out. We don't ever do anything different on the road than we do at home. We are just in a different place. I don't think it's because we are not prepared to play or no focus or anything like that. This will be the first time on the road this year so we are anxious to travel. I do think this is a fairly mature team. We'll find out."
… on whether something needs to be said to the team before first road trip: "Just that when we go into a hostile environment, it takes a great deal of focus. Obviously the fans (in Minnesota) are going to be very loud, like our home field advantage here, so the shoe is on the other foot. It's a bigger challenge for the offense."
Quote of Note
StarTribune writer Myron P. Medcalf caught up with Tedford for an article previewing the game and the two-time Pac-10 coach of the year reiterated that how Cal deals with the high rankings and national attention is solely up to them:
** Now, Tedford uses rankings to show players that pundits and pollsters alike believe in their potential -- and it's up to them to play up to it.
"I told the team in the summer when some of the rankings came out that ... let's not hide from that," he said. "What do the rankings mean? It means that some people somewhere think we have the potential to be a good football team. Now, what we do with that potential is completely up to us."
Offensive player to watch: Eric Decker
Even though he was just a 2-star ranked athlete coming out of high school, Decker has made it perfectly clear that there is nothing mediocre about what he brings to a football team.
Since the moment he arrived on campus, Decker has been a phenomenal weapon for the Minnesota offense. Looking at this year's team, there are a couple of other offensive weapons that the Cal defense will need to key on, but looking at the numbers there is no way getting around how important Decker is to the Gophers' ability to put points on the board.
As Decker goes, so goes the Minnesota offense.
The 6-foot-2, 215 pound Decker is quite simply one of the more productive receivers in the country the last two seasons and he's brought that tremendous momentum into the new year.
In just two games, Decker has caught 19 balls for 296 yards.
Decker gets sent on deep routes, crossing routes and short routes and manages to beat double teams on a consistent basis despite opponents keying and preparing for his every move an entire week before game day. But, the most important and impressive attribute that Decker possesses are his hands. The All-American candidate rarely drops a pass that hits him in the mitts.
To put Decker's value to Minnesota's offense in perspective, junior quarterback Adam Weber has completed 39-of-71 passes for 467 yards this season. Decker has accounted 48.7 percent of the team's receptions and 63.3 percent of the team's passing yards.
In his sophomore and junior campaigns, Decker combined to catch 151 balls for 1983 yards and 16 touchdowns. If Cal fans want a comparison that hits home, Decker is similar in value to Minnesota's offense as Dameane Douglas was to the Cal offense back in the Tom Holmoe days. In fact, who can forget the 1998 season in which Douglas set a school record with 100 receptions in a single season.
While this Minnesota team has more talent offensively than that '98 Cal team, Decker's significance to the Gophers is comparable to how Justin Vedder relied on Douglas back in those days.
MinnesotaStarTribune: Decker, again, is the catalyst
YouTube: Eric Decker 2008 season highlights
YouTube: Decker highlights against Syracuse
Defensive player to watch: Lee Campbell
Through two games this season, the Bears have already rushed for 586 yards on the ground, which includes 10 rushing touchdowns and an astounding 7.1 yards per carry overall. Cal will undoubtedly continue to keep the ball on the ground come Saturday, which is why getting a hat on the tough Campbell will be a key to the Bears' offensive success.
The 6-foot-3, 246 pound middle linebacker led Minnesota in tackles last season (80 tackles) and returns as one of the top linebackers in the Big Ten. While Campbell's other two mates alongside him in Nate Triplett and Simoni Lawerence are just as important to the Gophers' success on defense, Campbell is the senior veteran in the middle that must be accounted for on every snap.
Along with his team-leading 80 tackles last year, Campbell also notched 5.5 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, 2 interceptions and a forced fumble.
So far through two games this year, Campbell ranks sixth in the country in total tackles (24 tackles), which is notably just behind Cal's Mychal Kendricks (26 tackles) and the aforementioned Triplett (26 tackles), who has had a tremendous start to the new season.
A talented athlete who plays hard and low to the ground, Campbell began his collegiate career as a defensive end after coming from Gulf Coast High in Florida, but was moved back to linebacker (his natural position) at the start of his junior campaign. Campbell quickly fell into a groove and went on to have a tremendous third season.
Campbell began the new year last week with a phenomenal performance in Minnesota's win over Syracuse. Campbell collected 13 tackles (11 solo) in the overtime victory on the road.
>MinnesotaStarTribune: Campbell leads noteworthy linebacking trio