Rolling Spartans to face wounded Gophers

Updated: October 17, 2003, 3:23 PM ET

MINNEAPOLIS -- It was about a week ago that the Minnesota Gophers were waking up with the hangover of losing their most important game in years.

The pain has dulled somewhat since their fourth-quarter collapse against Michigan.

"You just have to remind yourself that you still have five games left," quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq said.

The first of those games comes Saturday when the No. 25 Gophers host No. 15 Michigan State at the Metrodome. A win over the red-hot Spartans (6-1, 3-0 Big Ten) would do a lot to redeem Minnesota after it blew a 21-point fourth-quarter lead against the Wolverines.

"We're definitely going to bounce back," Abdul-Khaliq said.

The Michigan game was billed as the most important game the Gophers (6-1, 2-1) had played in recent memory. But this week's game also carries big implications.

A win would give the Gophers -- who fell from No. 17 in this week's poll by The Associated Press -- much-needed momentum, but a loss could send them spiraling and dash their Big Ten title hopes.

The emotional loss to Michigan didn't affect this week's preparations for the Spartans, Minnesota coach Glen Mason said.

"I would approach this the same way if we were undefeated or hadn't won a game," Mason said. "You've got to get ready to play your opponent."

There's no secret to Minnesota's offensive strategy. With Marion Barber III leading a corps of talented running backs, the Gophers love to go to the ground.

The Gophers' running game averages 298 yards a game, Barber is averaging nearly 106 and has a school record 14 rushing touchdowns this year. Minnesota racked up 424 rushing yards against the Wolverines last week, but were beaten by quarterback John Navarre's arm.

Navarre threw for 353 yards-- the most by far Minnesota has given up this year. And the Gophers will face another hot quarterback -- Jeff Smoker -- on Saturday.

"Believe that," Gophers cornerback Justin Isom said. "We will be prepared for the passing game this week. We're just going to buckle it up Saturday and go at it."

Smoker ranks second among the Big Ten leaders in passing and total offense -- right behind Navarre.

Besides their potent offense, the Spartans will also bring one of the best run defenses Minnesota will see this year. Michigan State is allowing an average of 78.1 rushing yards per game. Only Ohio State (59.7) and Purdue (60.8) have been stingier.

The Spartans know the Gophers are capable of raising that average.

"This is a team that's going to run the ball 50 times maybe," defensive line coach Steve Stripling said. "And we haven't seen that kind of attack all year."

Said Spartans coach John L. Smith: "That's their game plan. So you've got to get enough people up there to try to stop it. And that's when they'll counter. It'll turn into a chess match."

The game means as much to Michigan State's Big Ten championship aspirations as it does to Minnesota.

The Spartans are one of only two 3-0 teams in the conference. The other, No. 14 Wisconsin, hosts undefeated Purdue this weekend. And four other teams, including Minnesota, have only one loss.

For the Gophers, though, that one loss may be viewed as the turning point of their season if they can't rally against the Spartans.

"You've got to look at the glass as half full," defensive tackle Darrell Reid said. "We're 6-1 folks, you know. We're not 3-4 or something like that."

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Andres Ybarra can be reached at aybarra(at)ap.org.

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index