This whole injury bug thing is getting ridiculous. Per Nate Sandell's story on 1500ESPN.com the Gophers are likely to field their sixth different starting lineup along the offensive line for Saturday's game at Nebraska. Zach Mottla started the season at center, got hurt, came back a month or so later, then broke his leg against Illinois and is done for the year. Former walk-on Jon Christenson was the backup, and played pretty well both at center and guard, but he too got hurt and is looking doubtful for Saturday. Zac Epping, the team's best lineman this season, has played extremely well at both guard and center, and will get the start in the middle of the line. What if, gawd forbid, something happened to Epping? Well that's where it gets tricky.
The two other players on the Gopher roster with recent experience playing center haven't played a down all year. Sophomore Brian Bobek is a transfer from Ohio State and is not allowed to play this season, while true freshman Issac Hayes was a highly coveted offensive line recruit from St Thomas Academy, but the coaching staff is doing everything possible to preserve his redshirt with just two games left in the regular season. So the coaching staff has turned to the Olson brothers to help out if need be. Sophomore guard Tommy was rumored to be a candidate to play center when he joined the team last season, but has been a fixture at guard- at least when healthy. His older brother Ed has spent his entire Gopher career at left tackle, but played center in high school at Mahtomedi. Sandell calls Tommy "Plan B" and Ed "Plan C", but the fact either is being considered is hopefully a sign of much better help for the brothers who, like most of their fellow linemen, have really struggled to stay healthy.
Tommy's been hampered since week four with a high ankle sprain and has barely played since, and Ed has missed four straight games with the same injury. The line has played pretty well the past three weeks, but they could really use two opening day starters back in the lineup ASAP, especially in their final two regular season games against Nebraska and Michigan State. As it is, sounds like the coaching staff will do what it's been doing all season, which is plug in the healthy guys and hope they can make it work. Apparently neither Olson is scheduled to start, but both could see playing time as backups back at their natural positions- that is, as long as Epping stays healthy.
Bad news from Sandell's latest report is that wide receivers AJ Barker and Derek Engel are still hurting, and neither are cleared to play this weekend. Engel's had a nice surprise season and all, but the guy this offense needs back to have any hopes of pulling an upset these last two weeks is Barker. The passing offense has stagnated badly without him, and while he might not be the same guy when he gets back because he too has an ankle injury, I'd still feel better about the offense's chances seeing him in the lineup. And how ridiculous have all the ankle injuries been? The Olsons, Barker, and Q are four of the team's most important players have all been slowed by ankle injuries this season. Did someone put a hex on the offense and not tell us? Can they please not put another one on for next season, because I'd really like to see what this line and this offense could do if they could get their starters healthy for two or three or, if we want to crazy, even FOUR whole games next season!
My expectations are pretty low for Saturday, but I'd feel a little better about things if Epping stays healthy, the Olson boys return, and maybe, just maybe, we can get something out of Barker. With the bad injury luck the Gophers have suffered this season, all of that probably won't happen, but here's hoping anyway.