NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- Minnesota's Laurence Maroney did
everything he could to make fellow running back Marion Barber III
crack a smile.
But the quiet Barber wouldn't budge at Maroney's antics, and
it's his serious demeanor that Minnesota hopes to mirror when the
Gophers play Alabama, one of college football's most storied
programs, in the Music City Bowl on Friday.
"He's like a little brother to me," Barber, a junior, said of
his sophomore teammate. "He makes everybody laugh."
Neither team, however, has had much to laugh about lately.
Minnesota (6-5) started the season 5-0 before losing five of
their next six -- including routs at Michigan State (51-17) and
"You have ups and downs," Minnesota quarterback Brian Cupito
said. "We were down at the end."
So was Alabama (6-5).
The Crimson Tide were 5-2 at one point in the season despite
losing starting quarterback Brodie Croyle and backup Mark Guillon
to injuries. Alabama lost three of four down the stretch with
Spencer Pennington leading the offense.
"I'd rather not play a down than see somebody get hurt,"
Pennington said. "Brodie's my best friend. I hated it for him to
get hurt because he was having such a great year."
Pennington struggled, going just 60-of-116 for 731 yards with
three touchdowns and eight interceptions.
"He's more relaxed and he's throwing the ball a little more
accurately," Alabama coach Mike Shula said. "I think the biggest
thing with him -- as with a lot of guys -- is consistency."
Pennington can't struggle if Alabama's top runner, Kenneth
Darby, doesn't return for the game. Darby, who ran for 1,061 yards,
has an abdominal strain and is a game-time decision, Shula said.
If Darby can't go, Alabama's defense will have to step up again
as the nation's second-best unit.
"Alabama has really hung in there and if anything the defense
has picked it up a notch," Minnesota coach Glen Mason said. "It's
a team game, but it's just like a family. If someone is sick and
injured and can't carry all the weight, then you pitch in."
Then again, no Southeastern Conference team has the production
running the ball that Minnesota does. Barber (1,082) and Maroney
(1,243) combined to each run for 1,000 yards for the second
consecutive season, a first in NCAA history, and the Golden
Gophers' running game is sixth in the nation.
Alabama safety Roman Harper said it's a matter of limiting
production by the backs.
"It's OK if they get two or three, or four or five yards," he
said. "That's better than 70 or 80. You've just got to get them on
Barber and Maroney say they don't have a problem sharing the
"It's simple," Barber said. "When you've got an offensive
line and guys there aren't complaining, you can't complain. It's a
team sport and everybody works together."
As Minnesota goes for a school-record third straight bowl win,
this is unfamiliar territory for Alabama. Only seven players on the
roster have been to a bowl game before, so forgive Anthony Madison
if he doesn't remember the last time the Crimson Tide played in the
"We haven't been to a bowl in two years or whatever," he said.
Not since 2001, when the Crimson Tide beat Iowa State 14-13 in
the Independence Bowl. Even with two years off because of NCAA
sanctions, Alabama is making an NCAA-record 52nd bowl appearance
and has 29 wins.
As a bonus, both teams can look at last year's Music City Bowl
participants for inspiration. Auburn and Wisconsin both were 7-5
last season and are a combined 23-2 this year.
Alabama and Minnesota boast similar young talent and hope a win
give them momentum going into next season.
Maybe that's why Barber deferred to Maroney when asked about the
"This is a great team to go against to get us back on track,"
Maroney said, smiling. "It sets us off for the 2005 season."