Kirkwood rumbles over Syracuse

Gophers running back Donnell Kirkwood had a career-high 28 carries Saturday.

Dane Mizutani

When MarQueis Gray limped his way out of the Gophers’ tunnel before Saturday night’s game, Minnesota’s running attack seemed to take a hit.

Donnell Kirkwood quickly put those thoughts to rest.

Kirkwood emerged as the Gophers’ top running threat in a 17-10 win over Syracuse. Gray had owned that title for Minnesota’s first three games, but he sat out Saturday with a high-ankle sprain he suffered in last Saturday’s game.

Kirkwood was a workhorse Saturday and consistently took pressure off backup quarterback Max Shortell with his gains on the ground. Kirkwood had a career-high 28 carries for 99 yards and two touchdowns against Syracuse’s front line.

“Whatever coach puts on my plate, I’ve got to keep eating it,” the 5-foot-10-inch, 220-pound running back said, moments after sneaking a bite of pizza in the postgame interview room. “I felt stronger as the game went on, and coach showed confidence in me. It just felt good.”

Early in the season, Minnesota’s backfield looked like it would operate in more of a platoon system. But Saturday, Kirkwood shouldered much of the load on offense and helped it maintain a balanced attack.

He looked more like a bowling ball than a running back at points on Saturday. He was patient in his cuts and got to the outside when needed. More importantly, he scored when he got near the end zone.

“We have a mentality down there that we will not be stopped,” Kirkwood said. “That’s what we think, and that’s how we’re going to think for the rest of the year.”

Kirkwood said his offensive line played a huge role in creating lanes for him. His head coach agreed.

“We were able to come downhill more [this game],” head coach Jerry Kill said. “Donnell … made some nice, patient runs and got the ball to the outside. It was a good team effort.”

And when he wasn’t plowing over would-be Syracuse tacklers, Kirkwood kept his quarterback comfortable and composed on the field.

“[We] have a great relationship,” Shortell said after the game. “We crack jokes in the huddle all the time to keep each other focused and just relaxed.”

Kirkwood drew some inspiration from NFL running back Brandon Jacobs, who was on the sidelines before the game. Jacobs currently plays for the San Francisco 49ers and starred for Kill at Southern Illinois.

“I spoke with him before the game — nothing too major,” Kirkwood said. “It was just, have a good game, run the ball hard … and sometimes that’s all you need.”

Notes

– Minnesota is 4-0 for the first time since 2008. The Gophers finished 7-6 that year and lost to Kansas in the Insight Bowl.

– Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib had passed for over 300 yards in his first three games of the season. Minnesota held him to 228 yards Saturday.

– Aaron Hill wore No. 51 in honor of the late Gary Tinsley. Hill had his best game of the season with 10 tackles and a crucial interception in the red zone.