MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — With a new position coach, a couple of junior-college transfers in the starting lineup and another as a key backup, Minnesota’s offensive line has undergone a significant change in identity.
The primary focus, buoyed by an intense offseason of work in the weight room, for the Gophers in 2016 was to present more of a punishing group of blockers to help restore the power in the running game. “Road graders” was the way coach Tracy Claeys colorfully described the style of players desired up front.
Their performance in the opener was a promising start. Quarterback Mitch Leidner wasn’t sacked in the game, and the Gophers rushed for touchdowns on all four trips inside the 20-yard line.
“There were Oregon State players falling over the place,” Leidner said, “so it was good to see the o-line knocking people on the ground.”
Senior right tackle Jonah Pirsig led the way with the pancake blocks. He was even singled out by the coaches during the film review of the 30-23 victory.
“It’s always fun to be shown for doing good things. It’s never fun to be shown doing bad things,” Pirsig said. “So I think some of the other guys kind of saw that, and they want to be that guy too. So hopefully they’ll have a clip from all five of us on the offensive line this coming week.”
There’s more motivation, too, in the form of a cup-shaped trophy new offensive line coach Bart Miller has initiated for the player collecting the most knockdowns. At the end of the season, he’ll get his name on it.
“It’s sitting down in our meeting room right now,” Pirsig said. “It kind of keeps guys hungry.”
After an overall uneven performance against Oregon State, Minnesota will have eight days between games before hosting Indiana State on Saturday.
“We have to come out right away and step on the gas. Facing an FCS opponent, we have to prepare the same way we would for a Big Ten school. I think in the past some of those teams haven’t been taken as seriously as they should,” Pirsig said. “We have to treat it just the way we would Ohio State or Michigan, so that we don’t end up like some of the teams that got upset in week one. It’s going to feel good regardless, but it’s going to feel a lot better if we beat them by 60.”
Here are some key angles to know about the game:
Indiana State, best known for the basketball program that produced NBA star and Hall of Fame forward Larry Bird from the 1979 NCAA runner-up team, made the FCS playoffs in 2014 out of the super-competitive Missouri Valley Conference. The Sycamores, who finished 5-6 last year, beat Butler 41-25 in their season opener.
ONE LEVEL UP
Indiana State beat an FBS opponent as recently as 2014, rival Ball State, but the all-time record against teams currently in the Big Ten is 0-15. That includes losses at Minnesota in 1989 and 1993.
ONE LEVEL DOWN
The last loss by the Gophers an FCS team was in 2011 to North Dakota State, but the opportunities for humiliation at home have dwindled with the decision by conference athletic directors to stop scheduling FCS foes to boost the league’s overall strength of schedule and bids for spots in the College Football Playoff. Minnesota previously put South Dakota State on the books for the 2019 season opener, but that’s the only such game left.
Four true freshmen played for the Gophers last week. Defensive end Tai’yon Devers had two sacks and two forced fumbles. Wide receiver Tyler Johnson, who went to Minneapolis North High School just five miles west of the university, caught three passes for 31 yards and provided a key block on Leidner’s first rushing score.
“He’s already made a ton of growth from our first throwing session in the summer,” Leidner said. “I would have never been able to guess that he would be able to play this year.”
Wide receiver Rashad Still (shoulder) will miss the next month, but wide receiver Eric Carter (ankle), running back Shannon Brooks (foot) and tight end Brandon Lingen (shoulder) could all return on Saturday after sitting out the opener.
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