Gophers rally past Nebraska

Minnesota will now face Wisconsin for a shot at going to the Big Ten championship game.

Senior running back David Cobb is congratulated by a fan after the Gophers' victory at Memorial Stadium in Nebraska. Cobb left the game with an injury, and backups Rodrick Williams and Donnell Kirkwood came on to replace him.

Senior running back David Cobb is congratulated by a fan after the Gophers’ victory at Memorial Stadium in Nebraska. Cobb left the game with an injury, and backups Rodrick Williams and Donnell Kirkwood came on to replace him.

Grant Donald

LINCOLN, Neb. — Minnesota’s victory over No. 21 Nebraska on Saturday ignited the team’s Big Ten West hopes — with one more victory, the Gophers will advance to the conference title game — and redshirt senior running back Donnell Kirkwood played a huge role in the victory.

Head coach Jerry Kill has been using Kirkwood all year as an example of how the Gophers should approach each game.

After suffering an injury early last year, Kirkwood lost his starting spot to fellow senior David Cobb.

But Kirkwood has always prepared like he was the starting back, something that saved the Gophers on Saturday when Cobb went down with a left hamstring injury in the third quarter of the 28-24 victory over Nebraska.

If the Gophers defeat Wisconsin next week, they will advance to the conference title game next month.

Kirkwood ran the ball seven times for 32 yards, and junior Rodrick Williams added 22 yards and a touchdown to complete the Gophers’ comeback.

“I’m always prepared,” Kirkwood said. “David is a hell of a running back, I’ll be the first one to say that. Coach always harps that you never know what is going to happen, you just have to be ready.”

After a 17-yard touchdown run by Cobb at the beginning of the second half, the Gophers’ training staff examined the running back’s left leg on the sideline.

Cobb walked around and rode an exercise bike during the game, but he did not return to play.

“Adrenaline will get you where you need to go. It’s after the adrenaline stops when [his hamstring] grabbed on to him,” Kill said.

Cobb finished the day with 80 rushing yards and one touchdown. The star running back tweeted after the game that he would be ready for next weekend’s clash at Wisconsin.

With Cobb out of the game, most of the pressure shifted to redshirt sophomore quarterback Mitch Leidner to complete the comeback from a 21-7 halftime deficit.

Leidner responded by leading the Gophers on two more touchdown drives, which gave Minnesota its first lead of the day.

“The one thing about [Mitch] is he is mentally tough,” Kill said. “It’s hard [being a quarterback] — you’re going to get judged and evaluated every day, but he has never changed. He stays in there and battles. He found a way to win today and make some big plays.”

Though Leidner threw for 135 yards, he made his biggest impact on the ground, rushing for 111 yards and two touchdowns.

“Just the way the reads were working out, it really just opened up a lot of running lanes for me,” Leidner said. “[The Cornhuskers] knew they were going to have to stop David Cobb, so it was going to be tough for them to stop both of us.”

The Gophers came back with some gutsy play calling by Kill.

Late in the third quarter, Minnesota trailed by 10 and was facing a fourth-and-1. Instead of kicking the field goal and making it a one-possession game, Kill decided to go for it.

The gamble paid off as Williams ran for a 19-yard touchdown on the play.

“At the end of the day, you are on the road, you’re in Lincoln, Neb. — hey, roll the dice,” Kill said. “If it didn’t work, I would have everybody in America telling me how stupid I was. Every once in a while, it will work.”

While the offense was chipping away at the Cornhuskers’ lead, the Gophers’ defense held a hobbled Nebraska offense to just three points in the second half.

“We came out [in the second half] with a lot more energy,” junior Briean Boddy-Calhoun said. “We got a feel for them in the first half, and we just came out in the second half ready to play.”

After Leidner ran for a 2-yard touchdown to give Minnesota the lead with 3:25 left in the game, Boddy-Calhoun stepped up to seal the victory for the Gophers.

Nebraska wide receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El caught a pass at the 2-yard line, nearly giving the Cornhuskers the lead.

But Boddy-Calhoun stripped the ball from Pierson-El, which made up for a dropped near-interception in the first half.

“Whenever I make a mistake, I try to make up for it, and I kind of carried [the dropped interception] as motivation throughout the game,” Boddy-Calhoun said.

After the turnover, Minnesota needed just one more first down to clinch the team’s second consecutive eight-win season.

Naturally, Leidner handed the ball off to Kirkwood.

“You get in and do your best job,” Kirkwood said. “I just felt like today was an opportunity where I can know what I am doing out there even though I am limited in game time.”