MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota's sputtering offense sure didn't need this: Star wide receiver Eric Decker will miss the rest of the regular season because of a sprained left foot.
If the Gophers (4-4 overall, 2-3 Big Ten) get in a bowl game and Decker doesn't need surgery, the school's all-time leading receiver could play once more. Otherwise, Decker's college career is done. He hurt his arch last Saturday.
"It's tough right now," quarterback Adam Weber said. "You have all these expectations for the season, and it's a big blow."
Decker sprained his left ankle last Nov. 1 in a loss to Northwestern, was unable to contribute in the following two games and the Gophers didn't win again. This is a different injury, but the impact is the same.
The transition to a pro-style, play-action offense after two seasons running the spread has been rough for the Gophers. They're next to last in the conference with 21.1 points per game and last with 292.8 yards per game after dropping 20-0 and 38-7 decisions to Ohio State and Penn State in successive weeks.
With defenses smothering Decker the last three games, the rest of the skill-position players haven't provided nearly enough production and turnovers have persisted.
Despite being held down this month by Purdue (three catches, 50 yards), Penn State (one for 42) and Ohio State (three for 27 before the injury), Decker has still accounted for half of Minnesota's passing yardage and five of Weber's six touchdown throws. He's second in the Big Ten with 758 yards receiving.
"I think he's the best wide receiver in college football, period," coach Tim Brewster said Tuesday. "You know, it's tough to replace a guy like that."
"I think it's really exciting for young football players to know that they're going to get their opportunity to go do some things," the coach said, "and collectively everybody is gonna have to step up."
Decker is one of 10 finalists for the Biletnikoff Award, given annually to the nation's top receiver. He's a baseball star, too, drafted by the Minnesota Twins in June, but football is his first love. This last season that began with so much excitement surrounding the opening of TCF Bank Stadium on campus has not gone the way he wanted.
Decker was unavailable for comment Tuesday.
"You want to say, I know how you feel, but you really don't," said Weber, his close friend and roommate. "It will be tough finding positives the next few weeks, but he'll be all right."
Will the Gophers be all right? Defensive tackle Eric Small, another captain, called Decker the hardest worker on the team. He's not only their most talented player but also perhaps their most inspiring.
During a loss to Cal, then the nation's eighth-ranked team, Decker caught eight passes for 119 yards and two touchdowns with blood all over his face and jersey from a hard hit that opened a gash that needed stitches. He even threw for a score in that game.
"He adds everything you could ever want in a player," Small said.