Neal: How Gophers rebuilt offensive line could make or break Big Ten West hopes

·4 min read

La Velle's 3-2 Pitch: Three observations and two predictions on Sundays.

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There were holes to run through during the Gophers' 38-0 victory Thursday over New Mexico State, enough for seven runs of at least 10 yards between running backs Mohamed Ibrahim and Trey Potts. But there was an occasional breakdown or a missed assignment that thwarted even bigger plays.

Quarterback Tanner Morgan had time to make throws for stretches of the game, often hitting receivers on crossing routes. But there were a couple of moments where Morgan had to rely on his pocket awareness to move.

This was the first game for an overhauled Gophers offensive line. Stud center John Michael Schmitz returned from a unit that was big, nasty and effective, but the other four starters were new.

"I think that was one of the things we had to really find out tonight," coach P.J. Fleck said late Thursday night. "What kind of line do we have?"

Gone are Blaise Andries, who was versatile, Conner Olson, Sam Schlueter and the massive Daniel Faalele. Curtis Dunlap, who would have been a contributor this season, transferred to Rutgers.

The Gophers began with redshirt sophomore Aireontae Ersery — listed at 6-6, 325 pounds — at left tackle and redshirt senior Axel Ruschmeyer at left guard. To Schmitz's right were a pair of graduate transfers in guard Chuck Filiaga, from Michigan, and tackle Quinn Carroll, an Edina native who played at Notre Dame.

The Gophers had the advantage of playing a program not in the same stratosphere. It was the right opponent for this revamped line. They pretty much had their way, but Fleck saw some areas they can improve on, like playing with a lower pad level. Ruschmeyer did leave the game with an apparent leg injury and was replaced by Nathan Boe.

"I think we're going to look at that film and say we can definitely play better up front," Fleck said. "You know, we got to communicate better. But again, what they're doing, it's not easy.

"There are sometimes two people in a gap. It's not supposed to be two people in a gap, but when there is, it creates a problem now. Creates an undisciplined issue somewhere else. But if you don't find that undisciplined issue, it can create a problem for the scheme that you have."

The line has been the foundation for the Gophers' success in recent years and is one of the biggest unanswered questions on this year's team. They have time to fine-tune some things over the next two games before the Big Ten opener at Michigan State on Sept. 24. Thursday was a solid start.

"I loved that they played incredibly hard," Fleck said.

Archer struggles

Chris Archer has pitched in 23 games for the Twins — with zero quality starts. At least five times the Twins have had to summon pitchers from the minors the day following another short Archer start that taxed the bullpen.

Archer, 2-7 with a 4.52 ERA, has not thrown a single pitch in the sixth inning. He has a career-high walk rate.

But the Twins knew what they were getting into when they signed the two-time All-Star for $3.5 million. He threw just 19 ⅓ innings over the past two seasons because of injuries, so rust removal was part of the plan.

"We knew it wouldn't be a traditional setup," manager Rocco Baldelli said, "and that we were going to have to get creative at times during some of his days and we would have guys back him up."

Watch Archer use this season to reset his career and pitch better in the future.

Vikings anchors

Another sign that the Vikings run defense will be more stout this season came on Thursday when coach Kevin O'Connell gushed about lineman Dalvin Tomlinson.

"I can't tell you how many times I was showing the team a clip of DT making a play in the run game, taking on double teams, all the facets of how we play," said O'Connell, who added that Tomlinson had one of the best camps of any Vikings player.

Tomlinson, who signed with the Vikings a year ago after four seasons with the Giants, had 39 tackles in 2021 with 2 ½ sacks, two tackles for loss, seven quarterback hits and one fumble recovery. Another plus is that he's missed just one game in five seasons, which will help stabilize the line. Free agent Harrison Phillips has impressed during preseason, too. Jonathan Bullard, another free agent addition, has experience playing the 3-4. It should be a different run defense.

... And two predictions ...

Twins' tough stretch

The first week of their most important stretch of the season won't go well for the Twins, who will go 3-4 in series at New York against the Yankees and at home against the Guardians.

Vikings over Packers

Kirk Cousins will throw touchdown passes to three different receivers. Aaron Rodgers will be sacked four times and the Vikings will beat the Packers 30-23 in the season opener next weekend.