Minnesota’s offensive line depth tested against Michigan and beyond

The Gophers will be without two starters on their offensive line for the considerable future.

Gophers+quarterback+Tanner+Morgan+launches+a+pass+over+Michigan%27s+defensive+line+on+Saturday%2C+Oct.+24.

Nur B. Adam

Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan launches a pass over Michigan’s defensive line on Saturday, Oct. 24.

Paul Hodowanic, Sports Reporter

With a roster full of newcomers, the Minnesota Gophers thought at least one position group, the offensive line, would be able to provide continuity and stability in this abbreviated season.

On paper, they were set to return all five starters from a year ago. But like many things in 2020, that didn’t go to plan.

The Gophers were without their starting right tackle Daniel Faalele and starting right guard Curtis Dunlap Jr. in Saturday’s 49-24 loss to the Michigan Wolverines.

Dunlap was seen prior to the game with a hard cast on his right foot, signaling he’ll miss considerable time this season. Meanwhile, Faalele’s absence is less clear. He was not seen at any point on Saturday and head coach P.J. Fleck gave no indication of whether that was due to injury, COVID-19 or something else.

“Those two guys who started last year aren’t there,” Fleck said. “That’s hard, but the other guys got to step in and step up.”

As a result, four positions shifted to accommodate the loss. Redshirt junior Blaise Andries, normally the Gophers starting left guard, moved to right tackle in place of Faalele. Starting center and redshirt senior Conner Olson moved to right guard, and backups John Michael Schmitz and Axel Ruschmeyer filled in at center and left guard, respectively. Only left tackle Sam Schlueter stayed in his normal position.

Minnesota’s depth at offensive line has strengthened in recent years; Fleck said there were just four offensive linemen on the entire roster when he was hired. Yet, after the game, Fleck noted he still feels the team is “a year to two away” from the depth he wants.

“The way we recruit, it’s going to take awhile to be able to get that,” Fleck said. “Now, we had it with five or six guys last year, and we stayed healthy, and that’s key to it. And if we didn’t, we had one other guy who could sub in and we were good with five. Well when you lose two of those, and you sit there and look at who’s next then you lose another guy that gets hurt. Other guys got to step in and go. No excuses whatsoever though, we have to be better.”

The Wolverines provided constant pressure on the Gophers, especially in the passing game, causing Tanner Morgan to have one of his worst performances in recent memory. His passer rating of 115.6 was the second worst of his career as a starter, only eclipsing his performance against Northwestern in 2018.

The redshirt junior threw an interception and had a fumble returned for a touchdown. He was sacked five times.

“I just have to be better. Period. It’s my fault. It’s not anybody else’s. It’s me,” Morgan said after the game.

While Morgan didn’t shift any of the blame to the offensive line, Fleck did.

“I didn’t think we protected well tonight. Nobody protects well against Michigan,” Fleck said. And on the performance of his quarterback, “There was some really good, there was some really bad. There was some inconsistency, but the fumble is not necessarily on him except there’s a few different reads we got to make better.”

Still, silver linings can be found.

Only one player on the offensive line, Ruschmeyer, lacks significant experience. Olson and Andries have started in every game of their college career. Schleuter has started 27 games over four seasons, and Schmitz appeared in every game last season.

Running back Mohamed Ibrahim ran for 140 yards and two touchdowns averaging more than five yards per carry, signaling that even if pass protection struggles, the running game can be successful.

Michigan will also be one of the toughest defenses Minnesota plays all year. The Wolverines ranked 10th in passing yards allowed, 11th in total defense, 21st in sacks and 25th in points allowed in the country last season.

Minnesota’s next opponent, the Maryland Terrapins, ranked outside the top-100 in each of those statistics last season, except for sacks which it ranked 94th.

“It was one game. The sky hasn’t fallen on the season, and we don’t look at it like that,” Morgan said. “We have to be better and we will be better. We will digest this film to get a lot better from it, learn from it and grow from it. Then, we will move on to next week.”