Both the Vikings and the Gophers have learned how important a great blocking fullback is to their offenses so far this year.
The rushing games for both teams really suffered when they lost their lead blockers in the backfield. Gophers redshirt senior Mike Henry was not available for last Saturday’s 23-7 loss to Iowa because of a rib injury. The Vikings’ running game was not the same while Jerome Felton missed the first three games of the season because of a suspension, and the team went 0-3.
Through the first four games of the season, the Gophers were 4-0. They were averaging 282 rushing yards per game and were ranked in the top 20 in the nation in that statistic. But last week against Iowa, with Henry out of the lineup, the running game was drastically limited.
They had rushed for 221 yards on 38 carries against UNLV, a 5.8-yards-per-carry average. Against New Mexico State, they had 342 yards on 43 carries for a gigantic 7.95-yard average. Western Illinois held the Gophers to 213 yards on 49 carries (4.35 ypc). And then redshirt freshman quarterback Mitch Leidner and junior running back David Cobb led the way as the Gophers totaled their highest total of the season with 353 yards on 67 carries against San Jose State (5.3 ypc).
But last week against Iowa, the Gophers managed only 30 yards on 27 carries — 1.1-yards per carry.
Gophers coach Jerry Kill talked about how Henry’s absence against Iowa affected the running game and forced Kill to make several lineup changes.
“[Redshirt freshman tight end] Maxx [Williams] is a very good football player and a big part of what we do, but we missed [Henry] a lot because we had to move Maxx in [at fullback] and [junior tight end] Drew Goodger from their original place. Maxx has been a very effective football player for us and so has Drew, and having to [have them] learn two positions was difficult. We’re hoping that Mike will be back and able to play Saturday against Michigan.”
Kill expanded on what happens to an offense when a team loses a key blocking back.
“Drew Goodger and Maxx both played fullback [against Iowa],” Kill said. “We had to interchange some things because of Mike’s injury. We like doing other things with Maxx and getting him the football throwing-wise and so forth. So Drew and Maxx had to do double duty, which affected what we do in the personnel groupings, because we like to have three of those guys playing [together] sometimes.”
Vikings: same issue
The Vikings faced the opposite scenario last week when their starting fullback returned to the lineup. It was well documented last year that having Felton in front of him made Adrian Peterson a much better back and helped him to rush for 2,097 yards, 9 yards short of breaking the NFL single-season record.
ESPN stats and info calculated that with Felton on the field last year, Peterson totaled 1,505 rushing yards on 6.9 yards per carry and nine touchdowns. Without Felton on the field, Peterson rushed for 592 yards (4.6 yards per carry) and four touchdowns.
Peterson had been good to start the season, there’s no question, but with Felton in the lineup against Pittsburgh, Peterson was able to produce more like he did last season.
Against Detroit in the season opener Peterson had 93 yards on 18 carries with two touchdowns and 5.2 yards per carry. Against Chicago it was 26 carries for 100 yards with no scores and a 3.8 average. Then he posted 88 yards on 25 carries with one touchdown against the Browns in Week 3, a 3.5 average.
But against Pittsburgh, Peterson carried for a season-high 140 yards on 23 carries with two touchdowns, and he posted a 6.1-yards-per-carry average, easily his highest of the season and almost identical to what he did last season when he averaged 6 yards per attempt.
Viking coach Leslie Frazier talked about how improved the running game was against the Steelers with Felton back to block for Peterson.
“It was great for Adrian,” Frazier said. “It gave our offense a boost. It definitely created a comfort level knowing that Jerome was out there. He didn’t have to talk through certain things. There is just a synergy between the two of them, and for our offensive line, it’s like having an extra blocker because of his success as a lead blocker. I think it definitely helped Adrian have a terrific day, and I think Jerome had a part to say in that.”