MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover has undergone a transformation over the last six months, shedding about 120 pounds in the offseason in an effort to improve his health.
Limegrover has credited giving up soda, changing his diet and getting on an exercise plan, but Golden Gophers coach Jerry Kill thinks he’s discovered another secret to weight loss. The rash of injuries to Minnesota’s offensive line has kept Limegrover up worrying at nights, Kill quipped, creating nervous energy that has melted away all those pounds.
“Coach Limegrover doesn’t sleep too much right now. He hasn’t slept all year,” Kill said with a grin. “It’s why he’s lost all that weight.”
One by one, the injuries to Minnesota’s offensive line keep piling up, forcing Kill and Limegrover to do more juggling with that group than they can ever remember.
And yet somehow, the big guys up front for the Gophers keep opening holes for their running backs and have found a way to protect freshman quarterback Philip Nelson.
Down to their third-string center and still uncertain if a pair of starters will be able to return at guard and tackle, the unit will face its biggest challenge yet this week. The Golden Gophers (6-4, 2-4 Big Ten) walk into Nebraska’s raucous stadium on Saturday, where the ferocious Cornhuskers defensive front awaits.
The 16th-ranked Huskers (8-2, 5-1) lead the conference with 27 sacks this season. Defensive end Eric Martin and Co. will have the added motivation of trying to finish undefeated at home for the first time since 2003.
Martin leads the Big Ten with 7½ sacks, and he’ll be lining up against a Gophers front that will likely be missing three regular starters. Starting center Jon Christenson and backup Zach Mottla both were injured against Illinois last weekend, forcing Kill to move left guard Zac Epping to center.
Brothers Tommy Olson and Ed Olson have also missed the last four games with sprained ankles, but have been working in practice this week in hopes of returning. In total, the Gophers have started five different combinations on the offensive line in 10 games this season.
“I’ve coached for 30 years, and this has been a unique on the offensive side of the ball, some of the things that have happened,” Kill said. “But I think we’re doing with the zone scheme and what we’re doing is giving us a chance to be successful.”
The Gophers were able to overcome the injuries last week to rack up 231 yards on the ground against the Illini in a victory that made them bowl eligible. And Nelson, a mobile true freshman, has only been sacked three times in the last three weeks.
“As the O-line, we’re all pretty close, so it’s pretty easy,” Epping said. “When somebody goes down, someone has to step up and be positive. We have to influence each other.”
Epping played tackle in high school, but coaches moved him to guard in college because he was a little on the smaller side for the Big Ten. As a precaution, offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover also had Epping get some work in at center, and it’s paid off. He started four games there in the middle of the season when Mottla was first injured, then moved to left guard when Tommy Olson went down.
Now Epping is back at center this week.
“It’s not really just snapping the ball, it’s mental focus,” Epping said of the difference between positions. “It’s different from guard, different from tackle. It takes some getting used to.”
Same goes for Nelson, who is having to get on the same page with a different center seemingly every week on top of adjusting to the monumental differences in competition between the Big Ten and Minnesota high school football.
“They all snap differently. It’s just a matter of getting the hang of it,” Nelson said in his typically unflappable demeanor. “It shouldn’t be too big of a problem.”
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