Rodney Smith put any remaining doubts about the Gophers’ running game to rest, breaking out with a 35-yard gain on his first carry.
Shannon Brooks would tack on a 28-yard run. Mohamed Ibrahim, taking his first carries since Week 2, returned from injury for a 15-yard touchdown. All in the first half.
With every cut back, broken tackle and gap exposed, the Gophers running backs proved they’re no longer dormant, exploding with a 322-yard game in a 34-7 victory against Nebraska on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium in front of an announced crowd of 43,502. The Gophers are now 3-0 in the Big Ten conference and 6-0 overall, the first time they’ve done that since 2003. They’re also officially bowl eligible.
Smith and Brooks, the two seniors in the running back room, missed most of last season with knee injuries. While Smith started the season, Brooks only returned at Purdue in Week 5. Ibrahim, who was the breakout star a season ago with those two injured, had not played the past three games with a non-contact leg injury from practice.
Ahead of the season, the Gophers touted the depth of their rush. But it wasn’t until Saturday night that the Gophers actually demonstrated that.
“Legitimately, we have three running backs that are capable of being an All-Big 10 performer that anybody in our league would like to have,” offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca said earlier this week. “… It just helps. You know, it really does. … It’s nice to have them.”
For the first part of the season, the Gophers passing game commanded attention. Receivers Rashod Bateman, Chris Autman-Bell and Tyler Johnson each achieved headliner games. And while that unit did score the first touchdown, a 15-yard Tanner Morgan pass to Autman-Bell, Smith’s 35-yarder was what made that possible.
The weather, in the 30s with intermittent snow, almost demanded a run-heavy offense, and the Gophers delivered. The offensive line, even without starting right tackle Daniel Faalele, stood tough against Nebraska’s big defensive lines. The tight ends, whom Gophers coach P.J. Fleck called the “unsung heroes” of the Illinois game last week, continued their blocking prowess, creating holes for the running backs to exploit.
“It’s a great feeling,” Brooks said earlier this week of the rush’s breakthrough game against Illinois. “I’ve got to give credit to my O-linemen. They played tremendous … opening holes for us. And once you get the offense to play that effective and that good, and it’s always fun when you make those big plays and be explosive.”
The Gophers defense didn’t go overshadowed, though. After starting the season with close games, the defense allowed just a field goal against Illinois, though Fleck took responsibility for that with an ill-timed timeout. They went 111 minutes and 27 seconds without conceding an offensive touchdown, going back to the end of the Purdue game in Week 5.
For example, after a big 51-yard gain for the Cornhuskers in the first quarter, the defense enacted back-to-back sacks, thanks to linebacker Thomas Barber and cornerback Chris Williamson, as well as rush …read more
Source:: Daily times