On fourth down with a minute to play Saturday against Iowa, Demry Croft dropped back and saw pressure flying in from the right side.
Croft was hoping to buy enough time to extend the potential game-winning drive for the Gophers, but he had little chance to make a play.
Anthony Nelson beat Sam Schlueter for the fourth sack given up by Minnesota’s offensive line in a 17-10 loss in Iowa City — equaling as many sacks in one game as it had allowed all season.
The Gophers’ pass blocking wasn’t that bad up front. The Hawkeyes were just that good.
So is Michigan’s defensive line, which will look to terrorize Croft again when Minnesota plays in the Big House on Saturday in Ann Arbor.
“Iowa was the best D-line we had faced up until this week,” Gophers offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca said. “They had long leverage. They were very strong. I thought our guys competed against them. I think where we struggled the most is when they had us in obvious passing situations. Those guys could really pin back their ears on our guys.”
The Wolverines aren’t just the best pass rushing defense Minnesota will face all year — they’re arguably the best in college football. Their 27 sacks are tied with Wisconsin for first in the Big Ten and fifth nationally.
Gophers coach P.J. Fleck couldn’t be too critical of his offensive line’s latest performance. They were ranked fifth in the country entering the Iowa game in sacks allowed. They still are first in the Big Ten and tied for 11th among Football Bowl Subdivision teams with only eight sacks given up all season.
That’s especially impressive to Fleck because Minnesota’s line has not been at full strength. Most recently, starting tackle Nick Connelly retired from football after being injured in an Oct. 7 loss at Purdue. There have been players up front missing on and off since the spring.
“Offensive line, you all have to work in sync all the time,” Fleck said. “And that’s what we’ve been missing because we didn’t do that in spring because we didn’t have the full unit in spring. But we’ve been able to hopefully expedite that as fast as we could.”
The Gophers tried things against Iowa to make sure Croft was not constantly in harm’s way. They called draws and bootlegs to take advantage of his athleticism and get him out of the pocket. He’ll likely have to do even more moving around to avoid sacks piling up against Michigan.
“He’s able to avoid pressure,” center Jared Weyler said. “Having a player like that back there makes us offensive linemen want to work for that player, block longer and finish our blocks.”
It’s hard for Minnesota’s coaches not to think ahead to how much stronger the offensive line could be when it’s more experienced and healthier in the future.
The only senior starter is left guard Garrison Wright. Schlueter at right tackle and Conner Olson at right guard are redshirt freshmen. Weyler and left tackle Donnell Greene are juniors.
“I’m really excited about the future,” Ciarrocca said. “I don’t like the results we’ve had. I hate the results. But I’m excited about where I believe we’re going.”