Whaley, running backs carry Gophers

Season-high rushing attack propels Minnesota.

by Marco LaNave

Each week, the formula has been different for the GophersâÄô rushing offense. In the season opener and Big Ten opener , sophomore running back Duane Bennett rushed for 78 and 89 yards at Syracuse and Northwestern, respectively. In the home opener against Air Force, sophomore running back DeLeon Eskridge led the team with 53 rushing yards . He also had a team-high 60 yards on the ground against Wisconsin on Oct. 3. But in the GophersâÄô strongest rushing performance of the season in a 35-20 win against Purdue on Saturday , a new star took center stage. Redshirt freshman running back Kevin Whaley had eight carries and gained 79 of MinnesotaâÄôs 207 total rushing yards , the teamâÄôs highest total in nearly two years. Whaley, who had a combined eight rushes for 34 yards before Saturday , benefited from how the Gophers have handled the running back position this season. âÄúI think heâÄôs been prepared,âÄù head coach Tim Brewster said. âÄúItâÄôs about opportunity, and what heâÄôs done âÄî like youâÄôd like to see most people do in life when they get an opportunity âÄî [is] seize the moment.âÄù Most teams will try to settle on a starting running back before the season. The Gophers, however, have spread carries to three running backs throughout the first six games. More touches in each game have generally been given to the player with the most success in that game. âÄúItâÄôs a competition,âÄù Whaley said of the game-by-game search for the best running back. âÄúWhoever shows up, shows up, and thatâÄôs how it goes.âÄù Fortunately for Minnesota, all three running backs contributed on Saturday. Eskridge ran for the GophersâÄô first two touchdowns in a 2-minute span during the second quarter, and Bennett had seven fourth-quarter rushes for 47 yards to help close out the win. âÄúWe all did our little part and helped the team out this week,âÄù Whaley said. âÄú[In] past weeks, everybody did their job, but this week, I think we showed that weâÄôve got a good running game.âÄù Whaley started MinnesotaâÄôs first scoring drive with an 8-yard run and later had a 5-yard carry that set up a 47-yard play-action pass from junior quarterback Adam Weber to senior wide receiver Eric Decker . âÄúHeâÄôs very elusive; obviously, heâÄôs not the biggest guy in the world,âÄù Weber said of the 5-foot-9-inch, 179-pound Whaley . âÄúHeâÄôs very, very quick. He hits the hole, and heâÄôs got a great knack for reading the zone-blocking scheme, and if you get him out on the edge, heâÄôs hard to stop.âÄù Whaley showed that outside speed on the GophersâÄô first offensive play of the second half when he ran 28 yards and set up WeberâÄôs 2-yard touchdown run that extended the GophersâÄô lead to 21-13. On the next drive, Whaley sliced his way through the defense for a 19-yard run to set up his first career touchdown, a 1-yard run that gave the Gophers a 28-13 lead with 10:10 remaining in the third quarter . âÄúHe is able to stick his foot in the ground and make great cuts,âÄù Brewster said. âÄúHeâÄôs also a very physical runner for a small-in-stature man.âÄù As small as he is, Whaley still needed some space to run on Saturday, and he found it from the blockers in front of him. âÄúI give it all up to the offensive line,âÄù Whaley said. âÄúThey gave me holes to go through, and I just ran my hardest.âÄù It seemed appropriate that, in the game that the Gophers dedicated to injured senior center Jeff Tow-Arnett , the offensive line provided the best openings that the running backs have seen all season. âÄúA big drive or a big play gains confidence, and especially for those front five guys,âÄù Weber said. âÄúWhen the running backs are running as hard as they are, itâÄôs kind of a back-and-forth thing âÄî they keep on working for each other.âÄù Minnesota ran on 21 of its 24 second-half plays and did not attempt a pass after Weber threw an interception on the second play of the fourth quarter . The running game was so reliable Saturday that Weber did not need to provide anything more than his career lows of five completions on nine attempts for 74 yards . The numbers are a complete reversal from last yearâÄôs offense, which passed for more than twice as many yards as it rushed . As excited as he is about the running gameâÄôs success, Whaley said the offense will need balance to be successful. âÄúWhen we have both [the run and pass], I donâÄôt think we can be stopped,âÄù Whaley said.