College football: Gophers’ problems on offense start up front
By Marcus R. FullerSt. Paul Pioneer Press MINNEAPOLIS -- Imagine entering the season with one of the most experienced offensive lines in college football, yet after three games, having an offensive line that is one of the most disappointing areas...
By Marcus R. Fuller
St. Paul Pioneer Press
MINNEAPOLIS - Imagine entering the season with one of the most experienced offensive lines in college football, yet after three games, having an offensive line that is one of the most disappointing areas of the team.
That’s where the Gophers (2-1) are as they prepare for Saturday’s game against San Jose State (1-1) at TCF Bank Stadium.
Injuries to offensive players are piling up: quarterback Mitch Leidner, tight end Maxx Williams, wide receiver K.J. Maye and left guard Zac Epping all are questionable for Saturday, according to the injury report released Thursday.
It would be easy to blame the offense’s troubles on injuries, but the Gophers won’t do that, even after last week’s 30-7 loss at Texas Christian.
Instead, offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover points to the offensive line.
“It all starts there, and we’re not playing the way we need to right now, so that’s a big challenge for us,” Limegrover said. “I’ve taken it upon myself, and (Kill) made that clear, that we need to be better in those positions.”
Minnesota’s returning experience on the offensive line was once among the best in the FBS, its 129 combined starts ranking fourth. Senior guard Caleb Bak (24 career starts) quit football because of concussions in the offseason, but the Gophers still returned four offensive linemen - Epping, center Tommy Olson, right guard Foster Bush and right tackle Josh Campion - from the group that started the Texas Bowl in December.
Bush has had to split time with sophomore Isaac Hayes because of subpar play. And though the team doesn’t want to blame the line’s problems on injuries, they certainly haven’t helped.
Sophomore tackles Ben Lauer (6 feet 7, 315 pounds) and Jonah Pirsig (6-9, 320) showed enough potential in fall camp to make coaches consider moving Campion to guard. But Lauer missed the opener against Eastern Illinois because of a high ankle sprain.
The plan when Lauer came back was to rotate him at right tackle, but he started against TCU in place of Pirsig, who is recovering from a shoulder injury.
The biggest blow is the potential loss of Epping this week. The 6-2, 318-pound fifth-year senior’s streak of 37 consecutive starts is in jeopardy because of a high ankle sprain he has been battling the past two weeks.
“Some of those things aren’t going to heal up,” Kill said. “Certain kids can respond in different ways.”
Kill said the injuries are frustrating, especially with the Big Ten opener coming next week at Michigan.
On the bright side, senior tailback David Cobb, who rushed for a career-high 220 yards against Middle Tennessee State, has recovered from an ankle sprain. His first career 100-yard game came last year against San Jose State, which gave up 353 yards on the ground.
San Jose State coach Ron Caragher knows how overmatched his defense was against Minnesota’s big offensive line last year, so injuries or not, he is expecting a sizeable challenge up front Saturday.
“They’ve got big-bodied guys,” Caragher said. “If you look at their roster, they’ve got five 300-plus pounders up front. They’ve got a big football team. Very good size. Very reminiscent of an NFL-type roster in size.”
Junior Joe Bjorklund and Epping are listed as co-starters at left guard for Saturday’s game. Redshirt freshman Chris Streveler and Leidner are co-starters at quarterback. Defensive end Alex Keith and wide receiver Logan Hutton are out.
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