Gophers offensive line coach Bart Miller gives his charges a “Tips and Reminders” sheet the day before each game, laying out goals for the week.
“Every single week, one of those bullet points is, ‘No sacks and no hits,’ ” left guard Jared Weyler said. “We take a lot of pride in protecting Mitch [Leidner], keeping Mitch off the ground.”
So far, so good. The Gophers have allowed five sacks this season, tied for fewest in the Big Ten with Nebraska (five). Leidner suffered a concussion Oct. 8 vs. Iowa, but that came on a designed run, not a pass.
But on Saturday, the Gophers will face their biggest pass-protection challenge yet, when they face Illinois. The Illini have two defensive ends — Dawuane Smoot and Carroll Phillips — who have combined for 20 tackles for a loss.
Pro Football Focus pegged Smoot as a projected first-round NFL draft pick, and Phillips is having a breakout season as a senior.
“Their two defensive ends are as good as anybody we’ve played so far, if not in the conference,” Miller said. “They’ve got some inexperience [at defensive tackle], but they’re stout and they’re strong, and they don’t get pushed around. They’ve played some good offensive lines and held their own.”
Injuries have made this assignment even more difficult for the Gophers. Senior tackle Jonah Pirsig will miss his third straight game because of a sprained ankle. Another tackle, Garrison Wright, and guard, Vincent Calhoun, are dealing with foot injuries.
Connor Mayes has been spelling Calhoun at right guard, with walk-on Chad Fahning filling in for Wright at right tackle. So the line’s three constants of late have been Weyler (left guard), sophomore Tyler Moore (center) and junior college transfer Donnell Greene (left tackle).
Greene took a costly personal foul penalty last week vs. Rutgers, when he got tangled after the whistle, took a shot and then delivered a quick hand to a defender’s helmet.
“Obviously you’ve got to play through the whistle, to the whistle, we teach that,” Miller said. “We do not teach the extracurricular stuff. We’ve got to be smarter than that. They’re going to catch the second guy every time, and we’ve got to know when we’re driving to potentially go in the end zone and score. We can’t put ourselves behind the chains that way and take points off the board.
“But I love the effort. I love the intensity [Greene] brings, and for a guy that didn’t come to [spring] camp, he’s a guy that has done a nice job filling in and playing well in place of Jonah and Garrison.”
Led by tailbacks Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, the Gophers have rushed for more than 200 yards five times this season after eclipsing that mark just three times last year. They had 229 at Maryland and 243 against Rutgers, and will look for more against an Illinois team that ranks 11th in the Big Ten in rushing defense.
Two hundred rushing yards sounds nice — the Gophers are 13-2 over the past three years when they’ve reached that mark — but that’s actually not their weekly goal.
“Every single week, it’s 300,” Weyler said.
That’s not just a tip. That’s a reminder from Miller that this group’s work is never finished.