Gophers’ line keys offensive production

Michael Dougherty

The Gophers offensive linemen have made mincemeat out of the cliche’ “practice makes perfect,” thanks to some heroic recoveries from injuries.
Left tackle Adam Haayer and right tackle Josh Rawlings both were held out of practice for the majority of last week. And both overcame their injuries to help lead the Minnesota rushing attack to a season-high 367 yards.
“A couple of those guys didn’t practice all week,” Gophers coach Glen Mason said. “Maybe that’s the answer — we didn’t have the chance to screw them up.”
The offensive line has gone from one of the team’s most glaring weaknesses last year to one of its strengths this season.
Mason said the line’s development parallels the offense’s improvement. The offense is ranked fourth in the conference in total yards (423.5 yards per game) and second to Wisconsin in rushing (242.7 YPG).
Mason said he thought the offense was on the verge of being successful for quite a while.
“I think if you go back and check my statements when we weren’t doing very good offensively, I said, ‘We’re not there, but we’re hunting in the right place,'” he said. “It’s more execution than anything. We have enough talented people and I think we have the right scheme.”
Haayer’s injured knee and Rawlings’ banged up elbow forced sophomore Jake Kuppe to backup at both tackle positions. And left guard Derek Burns made his second-straight start for the injured Pat Hau.
Mason said quarterback Billy Cockerham’s improved play and Thomas Hamner’s continuing emergence as an upper-echelon tailback are the result of the offensive line.
“His supporting cast is playing better, and it takes the pressure off of him,” Mason said of Cockerham. “There’s some good blocking going on too, otherwise they wouldn’t be doing as well.”

Back makes Carter sore
Thanks to strong safety Tyrone Carter’s sore back, senior wide receiver Luke Leverson returned to his role as punt returner — last year he netted a 68-yard return for a touchdown in the Michigan State win.
Carter took over for Leverson earlier this season and averaged 12.5 yards in 23 returns. But Carter hurt his lower back on a return against Wisconsin last week, so Mason decided to make the switch — much to Carter’s chagrin.
“We get a lot of milage out of that little guy,” Mason said of Carter. “He is a great football player, and he gets mad at me when I won’t let him in there.”
Carter said that since he was cleared to return kickoffs, he was upset the coaches wouldn’t let him handle punts as well.
“But hey, as long as we scored it’s OK,” he said. “I felt real good for my buddy Luke back there. He and I are buddies so it was just nice to see somebody get in the end zone.”
Leverson’s 74-yard return for a touchdown in the first quarter Saturday sparked the Gophers’ 37-7 romp against Illinois.
Mason said the decision, “makes me look good, doesn’t it?” He also said Carter would probably be back to return punts this week.

Fast Freddy too fast
Illinois avoided a shutout thanks to a late first-half touchdown that was set up by a 15-yard personal foul penalty on Minnesota cornerback Fred Rodgers.
Rodgers, who runs the 100-meter dash for the Gophers track team, is a gunner on the punt team — he lines up wide of the offensive line and sprints down the field.
But on a 39-yard Ryan Rindels punt with Minnesota up 17-0, Rodgers hit Illini punt returner Eugene Wilson about a half-second early and drew the flag.
“My guy said he was pushed in the back,” Mason said, “but I don’t know.”
Rodgers’ troubles continued when the punt was picked up and he pursued, only to get leveled by freshman linebacker Jerry Schumacher.

Michael Dougherty covers football and can be reached at [email protected]