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Minnesota Football: Not winning in the trenches

I had a novel idea. One that I haven't had in several weeks. It's almost as if it came to me in a dream.

I'm going to attempt something that I haven't attempted in quite some time. I'm going to attempt to write about the actual football that the Gophers are playing on the field. Hold your breath. Bear with me. This could get ugly.

Among the litany of problems that this Gopher football team is experiencing, perhaps the one that may actually be the largest symptom of all is the line play on both sides of the ball. It ain't been pretty. This is a football team that can't protect its QB, can't get to the other team's QB, has a difficult time running the ball, and a difficult time stopping the run.

It's tough to know what are legitimate statistics in all of these areas because the Gophers have been playing from behind so often this season. If teams are up, and up big, they won't pass as much. And generally when we're down big, we are going to pass more. But that hasn't actually been the case for our offense this year, so the offensive numbers are pretty legit, mostly balanced, and in reality actually favor the run.

Rushing Offense

Through 6 games the team is averaging 35.8 rushes/game, vs 25.3 passes/game. In only one game, against New Mexico State, did the Gophers run the ball (35 times) than they threw the ball (40 times). In the one game that the Gophers have won, against Miami(Ohio), the Gophers actually ran the ball (47 runs) more than twice as much as they passed it (21 passes). Of course, that was the game where Q was superhuman and single-handedly ran us to victory.

But even in games where the Gophers were behind early and by large margins, they have not abandoned the run. Still, the results aren't good.

The Gophers are averaging 144.7 yards/game and 4 yards/carry on the ground. 3 teams in the B1G have lower yards/game numbers (Indiana, Iowa and surprisingly MSU), while only two teams are averaging less yards/carry (Indiana & MSU).

If you've watched the games, you know that the feel of the running game is even a bit more grim than the numbers paint. The o-line is rarely opening up holes that the running backs can make much use of, any stunts that these linemen are being asked to perform typically leads to confusion or a missed assignment, and the RB's are typically left to their own devices to make anything good happen.

Rushing Defense

On the defensive side of the ball, the line isn't faring any better. The Gophers rank 11th in the B1G in rushing yards allowed/attempt at 4.8 yards (thank you Indiana for giving up 5 yards/attempt), and 9th in the conference in total rushing yards allowed/game with 166.5.

Now these stats fall on the LB's as well, because when opposing RB's are getting to the second level, our heralded LB group hasn't been as stellar as advertised in stopping them either. And how do we know? Kim Royston is the leading tackler on the team with 8.5 tackles/game. Brock Vereen (another defensive back) is tied with Gary Tinsley for second with 6.5 tackles/game.

I don't have to tell you that it's not a good thing when your dbacks are leading the team in tackles. It means opposing offenses are getting far too many yards.

And our ability to tackle? There's probably enough to talk about there for an entire post... and that is not this one.

Passing Offense

Despite all of this, as I mentioned, the running game still accounts for more than ten plays/game more than the passing game. And why is that? Well, because as bad as the running game has been, the passing game is even worse.

The Gophers have the second fewest total passing yards (934), the second fewst passing yards/game (155.7), and the second lowest completion % (48%) in the B1G thanks to the ineptitude that is the Buckeyes passing game this season.

The Buckeyes passing woes have to do with lack of experience at the QB position, and while the Gophers experience at QB certainly isn't any better than the Buckeyes, we would never know if the lack of experience is causing these ugly numbers because these inexperienced QB's, even when they are asked to throw the ball, are rarely given enough time by the offensive line to make good throws.

And the sack numbers back it up. This QB's have been sacked 15 times this season, or 2.5/game. Some of this is going to fall on the RB's inability to sometimes pick up the blitz, but here again if you have watched these games you know that missed blitz pick-ups by RB's are secondary symptoms to missed blocking assignments up front.

Another thing that you know if you have watched these games (and this is something I couldn't find any stats for) is how often these QB's are hurried, hit, and flushed out of the pocket. In fact, without going back and watching every game to count it out (because that would be painful on the level of shoving a pen in my eye), my guess would be that a good reason our rushing attempts have far outweighed our passing attempts is because of the number of times a passing play has turned into a running play out of pure necessity.

Here again there are obviously other issues (WR's not running the right routes, or not getting open, etc), but an offensive line in the B1G needs to be strong enough, and hold their blocks long enough on the regular, that the WR can finish off their routes.

Passing Defense

On the other side of the ball, it's been well publicized that we are a team that cannot sack the QB. In 6 games we have just 5 sacks, and opposing QB's are getting all the time in the world to torch our DB's. So much time, in fact, that we rank second to last in the league (thank you Iowa) in completions given up (133), 10th in the conference in total passing yards given up, dead last in INT's, dead last in opposing team's completion %, dead last in passing TD's given up, and dead last in some statistic I know nothing about called Efficiency.

In Closing...

Let's be honest, we can go around and around all day long and discuss the problems with this team on the field, and those problems will shed light on other problems, and those problems will have other symptoms and so on. But the bottom line is that the teams in this conference who win have always had top-notch offensive and defensive lines.

And the worst teams in the conference typically have offensive and defensive lines like the Gophers.