When Mohamed Ibrahim runs for 224 yards and four touchdowns, the Gophers offensive line is happy.
Because Ibrahim’s performance helped the team beat Illinois 41-14, yes, and because the unit contributed key blocks to send him on his way down the field. But also because that merits a sweet reward from the running backs.
“They brought in doughnuts the other day, and Mo delivered,” O-line coach Brian Callahan said. “… He’s probably the most popular guy on the team, in terms of being a teammate. So we love him. We’re very proud of what he’s done. And we know we have a small piece to play in it.”
For a group that doesn’t accrue stats — beyond doughnuts earned — Ibrahim’s ascension to leading rusher in the Big Ten is tangible evidence of the O-line’s effort this season. And the group managed it even without two starters.
The Gophers will need continued line excellence against Iowa on Friday, as the Hawkeyes sport the best rush-defense in the Big Ten. They’ve allowed an average of just 102 yards per game and just four rushing scores through three games.
Gophers right tackle Daniel Faalele and right guard Curtis Dunlap Jr. have yet to play. Dunlap has roamed the sideline during games while recovering from a left foot injury, while Faalele hasn’t appeared, potentially out of COVID-19 precaution. Callahan said he is in constant contact with the two but declined to give any more specifics on their absences or a timeline for return.
Losing 6-9, 400-pound Faalele and 6-5, 345-pound Dunlap forced a scramble, with Sam Schlueter at left tackle, Axel Ruschmeyer at left guard, John Michael Schmitz at center, Conner Olson at right guard and Blaise Andries at right tackle.
Schlueter, Olson and Andries are multiyear starters, while Schmitz was often rotated in last season or deployed in a six-man formation. Ruschmeyer is the new face, with Nathan Boe taking some of his snaps during a brief injury in the Maryland game.
“We obviously missed Dan and Curt, but I think Axel and John are doing amazing, and so is the rest of the offensive line,” Andries said. “It’s really a trust thing, and we trust those guys, and they trust us. And we had a lot of time in the summer and in the fall to have a lot of reps.”
Callahan called his room mature and adult, all individuals who took the ample time on their own during the COVID-19 pandemic to take their strength and conditioning seriously. The coach said that helped the players navigate depth tests and other unforeseen changes with ease. Players’ versatility also helps, including Andries and Olson having played basically every position on the line.
Plus, the offensive line might be the position group with the best hair, from Andries’ professionally highlighted golden mane (uncut since last July) to Olson’s bleached mullet (an attempt to one-up Andries’ locks) to Schlueter’s own mini-mullet.
Several O-linemen are from Minnesota, including Andries, Schlueter, Olson and Ruschmeyer. All of them feel a certain way about this border rivalry.
“We’re going to take this one personal,” Andries said, adding coach P.J. Fleck instructed the players to dream about the Floyd of Rosedale trophy. “ … Really us and Mo and Tanner [Morgan, quarterback] and the receivers, go and have a day with it.”
Ibrahim, at least, knows just the way to elicit tough blocks and strong protection from the O-line. Andries said no one shows love to a position group like Ibrahim does to the linemen, giving them all 6 a.m. hugs before weightlifting just to tell them good morning and ask how they’ve been.
“We take a lot of pride in having Mo as a part of this team and really as a part of the O-line,” Andries said, despite the 5-10, 210-pound Ibrahim being about seven inches and 100 pounds shy of a typical lineman. “He can come and sit in our meetings anytime, and we love to have him.
“Having him do well is really, really promising because that means we’re doing well also.”