Jackson left out of U’s running-back action

Last year’s leading rusher with 1,317 yards, Terry Jackson II did not play against Penn State.

Brett Angel

Terry Jackson II waited patiently on Minnesota’s sideline during the first quarter of Saturday’s game against Penn State.

The junior running back, who led the team in rushing last season with 1,317 yards, watched as the Gophers’ running game bulldozed through Penn State’s defensive line to the tune of 105 first-quarter rushing yards and a 14-0 lead.

He watched as freshman running back Laurence Maroney was given seven first-period carries, including a three-yard touchdown run that capped an improbable 99-yard drive.

In the second half, as Minnesota’s offense sputtered and the Gophers punted on each of their first three possessions, Jackson remained on the sideline.

He stood with his hands on his hips and his helmet on, ready to sprint onto the field and contribute as soon as his number was called.

He never got the chance.

Jackson finished the game with zero of Minnesota’s 250 yards rushing. Although the Gophers ran the ball 52 times, he didn’t get a carry. He didn’t even play on special teams.

Jackson is the only one of Minnesota’s top four running backs who does not know what it’s like to play in front of 106,000 screaming fans at Beaver Stadium.

“(That decision) was made during the course of the game,” running backs coach Vic Adamle said Sunday. “It was just the flow of the game decisions.”

Jackson declined to be interviewed after Sunday’s practice.

It’s admittedly difficult for Minnesota coaches to find enough playing time for each of their four talented running backs, a list that includes Marion Barber III and Thomas Tapeh, in addition to Jackson and Maroney.

But curiously, the odd man out in Saturday’s Big Ten opener against the Lions was the same guy who kept the running game afloat in 2002.

Last season, after Barber suffered an early-season hamstring injury and was subsequently redshirted, Jackson stepped in and emerged as Minnesota’s feature back.

He averaged 5.5 yards per carry and became the first Gopher to rush for 200 yards in consecutive games with 239- and 238-yard performances against Northwestern and Michigan State, respectively. His 1,317-yard season total ranks fifth in school history.

Now, less than nine months later, Jackson has apparently sunk to the bottom of the depth chart.

“Do I feel for him? Yeah,” Adamle said. “He’s a great kid. He’s always worked real hard. He’s got a great attitude and brings a lot to the table.”

Through four nonconference games this season, Jackson gained 221 yards, averaged 4.7 yards per carry and scored one touchdown.

Minnesota coach Glen Mason has said all season he isn’t concerned with individual statistics when it comes to his running backs.

“If you’re worried about who the starting running back is, who’s getting so many carries, who’s catching the ball, you don’t have a chance,” Mason said. “That’s not what it’s about, that’s not what I’m about. I expect whoever goes in there to play hard.”

For now, the reason behind Jackson’s absence from Minnesota’s running game remains a mystery. Adamle said Jackson has practiced as well as any back and that Jackson’s health is not an issue.

“He’s the best practice player we’ve got at the position, in all honesty,” Adamle said. “He does more with his ability than any of the guys.”

Even Maroney, who filled Jackson’s position as the third running back behind Barber and Tapeh on Saturday, is at a loss to explain his teammate’s decreased role in the offense.

“I’d be surprised just like I was Saturday if he didn’t play (this week versus Northwestern),” Maroney said. “He’s a returning 1,000-yard rusher. He’s already proved what he could do in the Big Ten while I’m still trying to prove myself.”

Adamle said he thinks there is more being made out of the issue than there should be. He also said Jackson will get more carries and an opportunity to perform as the season continues.

In spite of being the odd man out against Penn State, Jackson maintained the upbeat attitude that has made him an ideal teammate for many of the Gophers.

“Terry was never disappointed (last Saturday),” Maroney said. “If I did something good when I’d come to the sideline he’d say, ‘Keep up the hard work, that’s good running, just keep doing your thing.’ “

Best-case scenario, Jackson will get the chance to do his thing this Saturday against the Wildcats, which would be as good a time as any.