Thanks to big line, B1G opportunities suddenly within Minnesota's grasp
MINNEAPOLIS — There are few things in sport as satisfying as basically telling the opposition exactly what you’re going to do, then executing it perfectly anyway.
When Minnesota unveils its “jumbo” package featuring an extra offensive lineman on the line of scrimmage and another lined up at fullback, there’s little doubt a run between the tackles is imminent. When changeup quarterback Cole Kramer comes in the game, there’s a close to 75 percent chance he’s running the ball. And when the Golden Gophers bring in Axel Ruschmeyer and go with a 6-man, unbalanced front, they’re probably going to run the Hutchinson native’s direction.
The no-flash, all-guts identity might seem contradictory to Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck-driven, platitude-laced persona. But this on-field identity all of a sudden has the Gophers within reach of big things thanks in large part to its big, big men and the coaching staff’s ability to lean on them.
“It’s a credit to the entire unit, honestly,” said offensive lineman Conner Olson.
That unit put up a season-high 326 rushing yards in a dominant 34-16 victory over Maryland on Saturday. The victory was the Gophers’ 3rd straight and has them — perhaps surprisingly after a shocking loss to 30.5-point underdog Bowling Green here a few weeks ago — in a tie with Iowa for 1st place in the Big Ten West.
There’s a lot of season to go. But with the Gophers riding their zone running scheme and a much-improved defense into matchups with beatable Northwestern and Illinois the next 2 weeks, the schedule sets up for Minnesota to make some noise in the division for the second time in three years.
“We have a lot of experienced guys up front that take a lot of pride to open a lot of holes and lanes for the talent of the running backs to take over,” said Fleck, who led the Gophers within a win of the West crown in 2019.
It would appear it doesn’t matter which running back is on the field in order for that takeover to transpire. In last week’s win against Nebraska, it was Bryce Williams. Saturday, it was freshmen Ky Thomas and Mar’Keise “Bucky” Irving, both of whom went over 100 yards.
It’s one thing to have one of the nation’s largest offensive lines. It’s another to assert yourself even after losing your top 2 running backs to injury and going into every B1G game knowing there are few secrets about your scheme.
It certainly didn’t matter Saturday. Minnesota took over in the 3rd quarter and didn’t throw a pass the entire 20 final minutes of game clock. A season-long 8:42 scoring drive made it 34-10 and put things even further out of reach.
“It was a good way to end the game from an offensive lineman standpoint,” said Olson, who made a school-record 52nd start Saturday. “I always prefer running it instead of passing it, no offense to [quarterback] Tanner [Morgan].”
This has become the formula: get a lead. Pound the rock. Dominate time of possession.
Minnesota finished with a 37:35-22:25 advantage in that category Saturday.
It’s hard to let a team back in the game with their offense on the sideline.
“It was a big focus for us as an offense to come out fast and accelerate in the middle of the game and I think we did that,” said tight end Ko Kieft, whose perimeter run blocking has been a huge bonus in addition to Minnesota’s mammoth interior push. “Credit to the offensive line and the three running backs, Bryce, Ky and Bucky, they were all running as hard as they can. It’s a credit to them and a credit to us trying to improve coming out of halftime.”
The algorithm should, in theory, work well at Northwestern next week. Then comes a home date with Illinois, which knocked off No. 7 Penn State in 9 overtimes while Minnesota was putting away Maryland.
Anyone can beat anyone in this league. But that “anyone” includes the Gophers, who haven’t won a conference championship since 1967.
They’re still a long way from ending that streak. But the formula is working.
“I thought they did a great job blocking,” Fleck said of his squad. “We didn’t throw the ball an awful lot today … this one turned into a game that we knew we could win up front.”