Minnesota may have gone undefeated in non-conference play this season, but the team's performance was far from perfect. After three narrow victories, it was clear the Gophers were in need of improvement, especially up front.
Through the first three games of the season, the team averaged a mere 2.6 yards per rush and allowed 11 sacks. Before the Big Ten opener against Purdue, Gophers coaches decided a change was needed on the offensive line and began giving John Michael Schmitz, a redshirt sophomore from Flossmoor, Illinois, playing time at center. Since that move, the offense has flourished.
"I felt like we could get John Michael Schmitz in there to provide maybe a break for one of the guys once in a while," said head coach P.J. Fleck. "But also to get John Michael's toughness in on the offensive line as well, I think that's what he provides. His leverage, he's a really good center. He deserves to be out there as well."
Over Minnesota's last three victories against conference opponents, the team has averaged 37.3 points per game, thanks largely to a resurgent rushing attack. Schmitz's impact is showing on the stat sheet as the team has run for a combined 654 yards over the past two games.
"[Schmitz] brings an attitude that I like," offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca said. "He plays like a Tasmanian devil at times — that's my nickname for him. I love the way he plays and his details, again, have improved."
Against Nebraska Saturday, Minnesota had to re-shuffle its offensive line, as starting right tackle Daniel Faalele was inactive with an injury. Redshirt junior Conner Olson, who had started the previous five games at center, moved to left guard and redshirt sophomore Blaise Andries slid over to right tackle, making room for Schmitz to start at center.
With an altered offensive line, the Gophers' rushing attack didn't miss a beat. Schmitz helped open holes for running backs Rodney Smith, Shannon Brooks and Mohamed Ibrahim, who combined for 322 yards and four touchdowns in a 34-7 victory against Nebraska. After his first start, Pro Football Focus named Schmitz to their Big Ten Team of the Week.
"We have so much trust in him," quarterback Tanner Morgan said of Schmitz. "It's just so cool for him in his first start to come in there and do what he did."
Thanks to Schmitz's emergence, the offensive line which looked like a weakness early in the season has become a strength. Minnesota coaches and players now feel they have six reliable offensive linemen and two tight ends who are strong blockers in redshirt sophomore Jake Paulson and redshirt junior Ko Kieft. Smith credited his blockers for his success against Nebraska.
"The offensive line did an excellent job," Smith said after the game. "They blocked their tails off tonight. Those are the guys that really helped me, the whole offensive line and the tight ends. They did a great job and we as running backs just had to make people miss and run people over."
Schmitz has made the most of his increased playing time, impressing coaches and teammates with his ability to create running lanes for Minnesota's talented rotation of running backs. His toughness in particular always impressed Fleck, a trait that was evident when the two first met five years ago.
"He's a tough Chicago kid," Fleck said. "Just tough, strong. He's got bear claws for hands. Every time we were recruiting him, he was building something out in the backyard with his dad."
As the Big Ten season progresses, Schmitz and the Minnesota offensive line will need to continue playing at a high level, as it will face a number of formidable defenses in November, especially Wisconsin and Penn State. Currently the Badgers and Nittany Lions lead the Big Ten in rush defense, allowing 44.7 and 53.8 rush yards per game respectively.
While the year's biggest challenges still await them, the 6-0 Gophers are not looking too far ahead. Before taking on the toughest stretch of their schedule, Minnesota travels to Piscataway, New Jersey on Saturday for the first time in program history to play Rutgers.