349 rushing yards earns offensive line compliment

Matt Perkins

In their routine film study this week, Florida Atlantic paid special attention to the Minnesota football team’s offensive line.

They counted the different formations and personnel, and in the end, came up with 12 plays they studied indepth to prepare themselves for Saturday’s encounter.

Twelve plays they knew the Gophers were going to run; 12 plays they knew they were going to have to stop; and 12 plays they were still helpless against.

“They don’t do much deception. They’re just big boys who go jaw-to-jaw and tooth-to-tooth,” Florida Atlantic coach Howard Schnellenberger said. “That’s probably the best offensive line I’ve seen since Nebraska’s in 1983.”

And the Gophers 2004 All-American center Greg Eslinger said you don’t have to be a college football historian to understand that’s a weighty compliment.

“Getting a compliment like that from anyone is always nice,” Eslinger said. “But to have those comments made by a living legend like (Schnellenberger) truly says something about our hard work paying off.”

The Gophers’ hard work has created 1,047 rushing yards through just three games, an average of 349 yards per game.

Helping rack up the yards this year has been backup running back Gary Russell, who rather than spelling Laurence Maroney on Saturday, was listed as a starter alongside him at fullback.

Coach Glen Mason said after the game that he might continue that role, not because of the 116 yards he racked up on just 11 carries, but because of his blocking ability.

“Through three games, his yards per carry is phenomenal,” Mason said. “When we lost (starting fullback) Justin Valentine, we moved him to fullback. I thought his blocking came along well this week and he made some nice blocks in the game.”

The Gophers have been getting blocks from their wide receivers this year too. Sophomore Ernie Wheelwright had a nice jam-block on a defensive back Saturday that allowed Maroney to score on a 37-yard screen pass from quarterback Bryan Cupito in the first quarter.

But in Schnellenberger’s mind it goes back to what he called “one of the best offensive lines I’ve seen.”

Working with Eslinger on the line is fellow All-American hopeful Mark Setterstrom, who received first-team All-Big Ten honors in 2004. Also leading the offensive push are unsung tackles Steve Shidell and Tony Brinkhaus, and guard Mike Nicholson.

For Schnellenberger it was the size of the Gophers offensive line that impressed him the most, a line which consists of only two 300-plus pounders, Setterstrom and Brinkhaus, at 305 and 300 respectively, a fact he didn’t know going into the game, but respects immensely after.

“I don’t know the exact size of those guys, but they clearly aren’t the biggest guys in the world,” Schnellenberger said. “But they aren’t fat, they are pure muscle and smarts, and that can go a long ways. Those boys can play.”