When right tackle Daniel Faalele left the 38-17 loss to Wisconsin on Saturday, the hole his 6-9, 400-pound frame left on the offensive line wasn’t the only gap the Gophers scrambled to fill.
Losing him to an apparent right knee injury in the first quarter also put a major dent in the Gophers’ game plan. Coach P.J. Fleck has boasted all season of having six starting-caliber O-linemen, and the Gophers have used several rotations to their advantage with that versatility. But all of those blew away like the swirling snow throughout the game.
Fleck said the team planned to use its heavy package that features all six O-linemen on the field at the same time, something that would benefit both the rush and the pass. The Gophers accumulated only 76 rushing yards and 296 passing yards. The line also allowed five sacks.
“When we lost him … it took a whole package away from what we were going to do. Big piece of the game plan,” Fleck said. “… It limits you in terms of types of protections when you get your six linemen on the field. We’ve had a lot of success with that.”
Both teams endured in-game injuries, possibly because of the cold and slick conditions.
In the first half, Gophers linebacker Kamal Martin appeared to injure his right knee, and linebacker Braelen Oliver hurt his left knee. Both eventually re-entered the game. But some were not as lucky.
Wisconsin lost receiver A.J. Taylor on a catch that helped set up the Badgers’ first field goal, and he hobbled to the injury tent without putting any weight on his left foot. Gophers running back Mohamed Ibrahim made a tackle on a kickoff return in the fourth quarter and stayed down on the field for several minutes. He eventually walked off holding his right arm gingerly.
Some Gophers players sat the game out entirely, including tight end Jake Paulson and running back Cam Wiley. Paulson was on crutches after leaving the Northwestern game Nov. 23 with an apparent right ankle injury. Wiley had his left leg braced and leaned on one crutch.
O’Brien’s surprise appearance
Sophomore holder Casey O’Brien broke out of the hospital, Fleck joked, adding the doctors practically had to put a leash on the four-time cancer survivor to ensure he followed his strict recovery orders. O’Brien had surgery Wednesday to remove a spot from his lung.
“I saw him on the field … for warmups. I said, ‘You’re not supposed to be out here,’ ” Fleck said. “And he said, ‘I know, I just wanted to say hi to my boys.’ ”
Fleck said O’Brien’s surgery went well, and the doctors are doing tests to determine if the spot in his lung could be a recurrence of the cancer O’Brien has battled since age 13. O’Brien has become one of the biggest stories in college football this year, after the walk-on shared his journey in a speech at the Big Ten Media Days Kickoff Luncheon and later on ESPN’s “College GameDay.”
O’Brien’s surgery was another event that made this season an emotional one, according to Fleck.
“The whole team was concerned about him throughout the entire week,” Fleck said.