As the Gophers approach Big Ten play, an improved running game is pivotal

The production from the rushing attack has dipped from the 2019 season, despite having many familiar faces.

Gophers running back Rodney Smith handles the ball during the Gophers' game against Purdue at TCF Bank Stadium on Nov. 5, 2016, where the Gophers won 44-31.

Maddy Fox

Gophers running back Rodney Smith handles the ball during the Gophers’ game against Purdue at TCF Bank Stadium on Nov. 5, 2016, where the Gophers won 44-31.

John Miller

After a week to get healthy and prepare for the season ahead, the Gophers head into Big Ten play undefeated, but with much to work on.

An area of strength that Gophers teams have almost always had is running the ball. However, that is far from the case this season. Inconsistent play by the offensive line has resulted in little time to throw and has made it hard for the running backs to get momentum.

“I don’t think we played very well up front. We have to get things fixed, we have to get people developed,” head coach P.J. Fleck said after the Gophers’ game against Georgia Southern.

In 2018, the Gophers had no problem running the ball despite injuries to star running backs Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith. After those two went down, Mohamed Ibrahim stepped up when the team needed him most and accrued 1,160 yards rushing on 5.7 yards per carry throughout the season. He was a key reason why the Gophers were able to finish the season strong, winning the Axe and a bowl game. 

Coming into the season, the run game was supposed to pick up where it left off from the year before: as a position of strength. Heading into the 2019 season, the Gophers were returning players with more than 6,000 career rushing yards collectively, and had four running backs with starting experience. However, after three games against non-conference opponents, the team currently has the 100th ranked rushing offense in the FBS. They are averaging 123.7 rushing yards per game, but that has only translated to 2.61 yards per carry. In 2018, the team averaged almost 50 yards more per game and ranked 64th in the FBS, while also playing a tougher schedule than the 2019 team has so far. 

The team hasn’t given up on the run by any means. They’ve rushed the ball 142 times, while only attempting 72 passes. If the Gophers hope to repeat the success it found at the end of last season, the rushing attack will need to improve. 

Minnesota’s offensive line has allowed quarterback Tanner Morgan to be sacked 11 times in 3 games, which has lost the team 81 yards, which ranks 122nd in the country. They have also allowed 24 tackles for loss, 113rd in the country. 

Youth is the potential reason for the offensive line’s struggles so far. This Gophers team is young, especially on the offensive line. 

A pair of underclassmen are starting on the right side of the offensive line: redshirt freshman right guard Curtis Dunlap, who is 6-foot-5 and 345 pounds, and sophomore right tackle Daniel Faalele, who is 6-foot-9 and 400-pounds. Faalele from Melbourne, Australia is only in his third year of ever playing football. According to Fleck, the only way for them to get better is by gaining experience, but the starting five offensive linemen are the best ones they have.

“Time with those guys is the number one thing for them, which we don’t have when they are really young,” said Fleck before the Fresno State game. “You’ve got to do everything you can, more film study and give them more looks and just continue to get them that much better every single day.”

The continued improvement of the offensive line and the health of the running back core is what Fleck and the Gophers are counting on heading into Big Ten play, where they will see stronger run defenses than they have faced so far. 

Ibrahim hurt his leg in practice leading up to the Georgia Southern game, and Smith got hurt during the game. 

“They’ll all be back very soon,” Fleck said after the Georgia Southern game.