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Published March 1, 2024

Gophers running game adapts after Rodney Smith leaves game with injury

Williams and Green combined for 117 yards and two touchdowns.
Redshirt Sophomore Seth Green attempts to avoid a tackle during the Gopher game against Fresno State on Saturday, Sept. 8 at TCF Bank Stadium.
Image by Jack Rodgers
Redshirt Sophomore Seth Green attempts to avoid a tackle during the Gopher game against Fresno State on Saturday, Sept. 8 at TCF Bank Stadium.

When the Gophers’ (2-0) redshirt senior running back Rodney Smith left the field in the first quarter without putting any weight on his left leg, Minnesota was forced to find another replacement at the position. 

However, with the help of two players, the Gophers’ running game would help Minnesota come back to secure the 21-14 victory over Fresno State (1-1).

True freshman Bryce Williams had an 11-yard run with 4:35 left to play in the fourth quarter, which got Minnesota down to Fresno State’s five-yard line when the Gophers were down one. From there, tight end/quarterback Seth Green faked a hand-off and plunged into the end zone to give the Gophers a lead late in the quarter. 

Even without its star running back for much of the game, Minnesota was able to run for a total of 132 yards and come through when the team needed it.

“We are going to have to continue to find different ways to get him [Green] involved with the offense,” head coach P.J. Fleck said. “If [Smith] is going to be out, he has to be a part of it — we have to be able to have a ground game.”

Williams came into the game as the back-up to Smith after Mohamed Ibrahim was ruled inactive. Williams ended the game with 87 yards on 25 carries. Green ended the game with 11 rushes and 30 yards and, more importantly, two touchdowns as well as a two-point conversion pass that helped the Gophers secure a 21-14 lead with 3:23 left to play. 

“I never know how much I’m running each game, I just make sure I am prepared to do whatever they ask of me,” Green said. 

Minnesota’s defense was able to hang on to the lead, with an interception by Antoine Winfield Jr. sealing the win when the Bulldogs were on the 4-yard line looking to tie. However, this is not what head coach P.J Fleck and the Gophers had in mind for their running game coming into the season. 

“Just like I told them on the field, no matter what, our rows stay in the water and we deal with it,” Fleck said. “We want to make something positive out of this if something like this happened.”

In spring ball, the Gophers hoped that with a young quarterback they could rely heavily on their two senior running backs: Smith and Shannon Brooks. However, that plan quickly changed when Brooks injured his leg prior to spring practices. Minnesota knew they still had Smith to carry the load until he left the game early on Saturday. 

It will be tough for the Gophers to fill the shoes of both of the seniors if the Smith injury turns out to be as serious as it looks. Smith came into the game needing just 42 yards to eclipse the 3,000 yard mark in his career. Brooks has racked up 1,728 yards with the Gophers over three years.

“It was just next man up when Smith went down,” Green said. “Coach said we all were going to have to be a part of the running game and we were able to fulfill our job.”

With their two seniors down and Ibrahim inactive for the night, the Gophers had no option but Williams. Against New Mexico State, Ibrahim ran for 101 yards, including a 74-yard run. Williams rushed nine times for 31 yards and a touchdown in his first career game versus New Mexico State. 

Jonathan Femi-Cole was his backup on Saturday night and had three carries for 13 yards. 

Another key play of the night that helped Minnesota was early in the fourth quarter on a fourth and one play. Green came in the wildcat formation and barreled up the middle for a first down. On that drive, Emmit Carpenter was able to knock down his second 50-plus-yard field goal of the night to answer the Bulldogs’ first touchdown of the night and give the Gophers a 13-7 lead. 

Minnesota will have to continue to rely on Green and Williams as the season continues on if the Smith’s injury keeps him out past Saturday’s game. 

“Our football team accomplished something very special tonight, it took everybody on this football team to win,” Fleck said. “This is one of those games that I will always remember and do a lot for your season.”

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