Gophers rely on golden backfield duo

MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota coach Glen Mason came to a stop sign on 15th Ave. SE outside the Bierman Athletic Building on Tuesday night and saw his season flash before his eyes. There went Marion Barber III, the 11th leading rusher in Division I-A, jammed onto the back of a moped driven by Laurence Maroney, the 10th leading rusher in I-A.
Maroney was laughing uproariously and looking nothing like an advertisement for vehicle safety.

"I thought, 'There goes my backfield,'" Mason says. "Right then, I decided I've got to put in a rule: Both running backs can't ride on the same moped.

"Laurence said to me 'Coach, I was being careful. I was laughing at Marion. He said, 'Oh, ----! There's Mason. He'll kill us!'"

Mason, only a little seriously, looked at Barber and asked, "Why would you get on the back of a moped he's driving?"

Barber just smiled. "I had to be somewhere in a hurry," he explained.

That moped explains a lot about the 2004 Golden Gophers:

One, they're having a lot of fun.

Two, off the field, whenever you see Barber, you see Maroney.

Three, Barber and Maroney go everywhere in a hurry, and they are taking the Golden Gophers with them.

Minnesota is 4-0 and ranked 18th in one poll, and 19th in another. They are scoring 44 points per game and running for 332 yards per game. There's a word for Minnesota's brand of offensive output. For the last 30-odd years, that word was Nebraska. But Rush Central has moved north.

Mason has led the Golden Gophers to respectability and beyond, a far cry from the 35 years before he arrived in 1997, when Dinkytown described more than the campus neighborhood that borders the athletic building. Mason has done it with some old-time football religion, a power running game complemented by a passing game dangerous enough to keep the defense honest.

Barber and Maroney complement each other on the field. Barber, a redshirt junior, is 5-foot-11, 215 pounds of power. Maroney, a sophomore who's 10 pounds lighter, has 4.35 speed.

Through four games, Maroney and Barber have already traded the team rushing lead twice. This year, Maroney has rushed for 131.5 yards per game and scored four touchdowns on the ground. Barber is averaging 128.5 yards and has six rushing scores. Each of them has three long (25-plus yards) rushes. In each of the four games this season, one of them has rushed for 100 yards by halftime.

Ham, meet egg.

"They hit the hole in a little bit different way," running backs coach Vic Adamle says. "There is a second gear that Laurence has when he sees the crease that I don't think many backs in the country have. And Marion will not hit it as quickly, but he'll drop the pads on a defender and bring his feet with him and hit the guy like nobody I've ever had before."

They are interchangeable parts, so much so that left tackle Rian Melander says he doesn't always know which one is lined up behind him. Offensive coordinator Mitch Browning says that he doesn't change his calls based on which one is in the game.

"It is a luxury," Browning says. "You're playing 60 minutes, but you get 30 minutes of each one of them. The fresher they are, the harder they can go. They bought into it. You can't ever underestimate it. They've been very unselfish. At most programs in the country, ether one of them could be the star."

Barber understands the question, but he doesn't understand how someone can play that way.

"You don't think about it," Barber says. "You don't think about it with the season this team is having. You can't be selfish about that. The offensive line doesn't carry the ball. You never hear them complaining ... I never get jealous about something. You just got to move on."

Maroney says, "There are enough balls to go around for both of us and more. We're not going to jeopardize the team."

The threat of the two of them has allowed the new starting quarterback, redshirt sophomore Bryan Cupito, the gift of seeing vanilla pass defenses. Opponents have yet to figure how not to focus on the running game. Cupito is seventh in the nation in passing efficiency (44-76-0, .579, seven touchdowns).

"We've been hitting play-action passes for big plays," says Cupito, who has completed six passes of 40 yards or more, three of them for touchdowns. "They can't put eight in the box all the time."

And they complement each other off the field. If they aren't on the same moped, they're on the same PlayStation. Maroney guesses they talk on the phone five times a day. It would be more, but the rest of the time they're already together.

Barber grew up a few miles from campus, the son of a Gopher star and NFL veteran. Maroney is from a tough part of St. Louis and a one-parent family. Maroney loves to talk. Barber loves not to, at least in public. His teammate vouch for his personality in private, especially when Maroney is around.

"Those guys," senior left tackle Rian Melander says. "They almost have their own language. They'll be sitting there laughing at something and everybody else won't know what the hell they're talking about."

The quickest way to make Barber leave the room is to turn on a TV camera.

"It's just that my son is a little different kid," Karen Barber says. "He's really laid back and humble. He just doesn't like attention."

"It's not like he's being arrogant," Maroney says of Barber. "He just never did it. Me, I could care less about a camera. You need the publicity sometimes. It ain't going to do nothing but help the team out. I might do all the talking for us."

The cameras are focusing on them. Barber and Maroney have become stars on a national scale, which is not bad for two guys that were not entirely welcome when they arrived at Minnesota.

Barber may be a legacy, but he got the last scholarship that the Gophers offered in February 2001. When Barber came to Mason's camp the previous summer, he didn't run well, and he had hamstring problems as a senior tailback and safety at Wayzata High. The staff divided, and Barber didn't get the scholarship until after Mason ended a shouting match by slamming his open palm on the table and playing the I'm-The-Head-Coach-And-I-Say-So card.

"Thank goodness that 'Mase' says, 'We are going to take him,'" says Tim Allen, the assistant athletic director for football operations. "He had a gut feeling. We kind of make a living around here on guys who aren't five-star recruits."

The coaches figured Barber would play safety, and Mason says he relented to a plea from Barber and gave him one chance to show what he could do at tailback. That's not how Barber remembers it.

"I told him I want to play running back. I feel like I'm better at that. He gave me an opportunity and I just ran it," Barber says.

Nonetheless, after five minutes, Adamle walked over to Mason and said, "I want him."

Two years after the Barber debate, the coaches had no trouble making up their mind about Maroney's skills. He was a two-time all-state player at Normandy High in St. Louis. Offensive coordinator Mitch Browning felt so strongly about him that he convinced Mason to go see him on the day that Mason's daughter Chris graduated from Minnesota (Mason made it back to Minneapolis for the ceremony that night).

But when Maroney made his recruiting visit, he couldn't have made a worse impression. He talked, and he talked some more, and then he kept talking, and the subject was all Laurence, all the time.

"He bordered on obnoxious," Mason says, "and I'm being honest."

On Maroney's official visit, Mason and Browning and their wives took him to Manny's, a gourmet steak house in downtown Minneapolis. Judging by Wednesday night, when Mason walks into Manny's, everyone greets him but the porterhouses.

Maroney balked at the menu, which features porterhouses, strips, rib eyes and filet mignons.

"He says, 'There are no cheeseburgers on the menu," Mason says. "I called the waiter over, and I tell him, 'Take one of your filets, grind it up, put some cheese on it, put it on a bun and give it to the kid.

"He took a bite. 'Laurence, how is it?' This is a $37 cheeseburger.

"He looks at me and says, 'Not bad. Not as good as McDonald's. But not bad.' I nearly sent him home right then," Mason says. "I stopped and counted to 10."

Maroney continued to talk when he was around the players. Barber came to Adamle and said, "I don't think I like the guy."

Maroney is sheepish about it now.

"I don't know what they thought when I came here," he says. "I was just talking to myself out loud. When I got here, I backed it up."

Mason says that when he told some players the cheeseburger story in Maroney's presence, "Laurence was staring at me with this puppy-dog look. He said, 'Coach, are you telling the truth? You would have sent me home?'

"Let me tell you something," Mason replied. "If I had known how good you really were, I would have sent my wife to McDonald's."

Barber and Maroney soon warmed to each other, and the Barbers became a lifeline for the homesick freshman. Marion has two younger brothers, Dominique, 18, a freshman on the Minnesota team, and Thomas, 7. Laurence became the fourth Barber son. He plays knee football in the hallway against Thomas, and often visits the Barbers' house.

"I call her [Mrs. Barber] 'Mother,'" Maroney says. "They make me feel real close. She cooks me what I want to eat and Marion doesn't even know about it. Even though we come from different backgrounds, it doesn't seem like it."

Maroney's assimilation on the field didn't take long. He came from a high school with few resources. Early last season, when Maroney got banged up, Mason told him, "Go see the trainer."

"O.K.," Maroney said. Then he stopped. "What's a trainer?"

Minnesota strength coach Dwayne Chandler said that the first time Maroney tried to jump rope, "It was like watching a frog leap. Now I tell guys to watch him. He's by far the most explosive guy I've ever been around."

With a late-season burst, Maroney surpassed 1,000 yards, finishing with 1,121 yards and 10 touchdowns and the Big Ten Freshman of the Year Award. Barber, with 1,196 yards and 13 touchdowns, made All-Big Ten. They are easily on pace to become the first teammates in I-A history to rush for 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons.

When Marion Barber Jr. graduated from Minnesota in 1980, he held school records for rushing yards (3,094), rushing touchdowns (34), and 100-yard rushing games (12) in a career. The records have since been broken, and now Barber's son (2,521, 30 and 11, respectively) is closing in on his dad's totals.

"To tell you the truth," Barber says, "I had no idea until last week. My mom told me about it."

So Barber did what most red-blooded American kids would do, even the quiet ones who don't want publicity.

"The next time I talked to my dad, I talked some trash," Marion says with a grin.

The Gophers won 10 games last season for the first time in school history. It has been 37 years since they have won even a share of a Big Ten championship, and 43 years since Minnesota played in the Rose Bowl.

It's a long way from Oct. 1 to Jan. 1. But it's fair to guess that if Maroney and Barber lead the way to Pasadena, Mason will let them travel by moped.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your question/comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com. Your e-mail could be answered in a future Maisel E-mails.