Gophers' bowl hopes dealt a big blow

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.

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.