Tears welled in Kamal Martin’s eyes.
Gophers coach P.J. Fleck was telling the senior linebacker he wouldn’t play in the team’s biggest game in decades Saturday, when the No. 17 Gophers toppled No. 4 Penn State 31-26 in an all-undefeated matchup.
While Martin warmed up in front of the sold-out crowd, he never came into the game, an apparent knee injury he endured at Rutgers on Oct. 19 keeping him out for a second Saturday. In all this season, Martin has missed four games, including the season opener on a suspension for violating team rules last season and the final nonconference game with a foot sprain.
Fleck said Martin had just rounded into playing form the day of the game and hadn’t practiced most of the week. Fleck thought about Martin’s future, not only for the rest of this season but with an NFL career on the horizon.
“I know it hurt him. I mean, it devastated Kamal,” Fleck said, likening it to telling his own young son he can’t go play outside. “… But I told him, one day, he’ll understand.”
Brock Walker picked quite the game for his first career start. The redshirt freshman kicker had seen his first game action only two weeks ago against Maryland, converting an extra point late in the game. But when the regular starter, true freshman Michael Lantz, had “a little bit of a health issue,” according to Fleck, and wasn’t quite 100% to play, Walker had to face No. 4 Penn State with the Gophers’ undefeated record on the line.
“Brock had a tremendous week of practice,” Fleck said. “… All the confidence in the world [in him]. He came in there and [was a] true pro.”
Walker kicked one 26-yard field goal and converted all four of his extra points.
New look O-line
The Gophers have tinkered with their offensive line personnel before, but the coaching staff broke out even more interesting formations Saturday.
Starting with a base of Daniel Faalele at right tackle, Curtis Dunlap Jr. at right guard, Conner Olson at center, Blaise Andries at left guard and Sam Schlueter at left tackle, the Gophers continued to rotate John Michael Schmitz in at center, while shifting Olson into either guard position, with either Dunlap or Andries out of the game.
But against Penn State, Schlueter would switch sides to play outside of Faalele on some snaps. And on others, Schmitz rotated in, but no one came out, showing a six-man front against Penn State’s strong defensive line.
The line helped the run game to 121 yards, well more than Penn State’s 68.4 average entering this game. It allowed just one sack, which Fleck attributed to quarterback Tanner Morgan smartly deciding to take a loss instead of hurrying a play.
“I thought we did a tremendous job of pass protection, and it goes to those guys working really hard, and it goes to the game plan,” Fleck said, adding it was a combined effort from the O-line, running backs and tight ends. “… The ball had to get out of our hands … move the pocket if we possibly could. But we had to get the ball down the field, and we had to mix it with the RPO game.”
After Saturday’s win, the Gophers and Iowa set a 3 p.m. kickoff time for next Saturday’s game at Kinnick Stadium, with the game televised on Fox. The Gophers have not won in Iowa City since 1999.