Gophers beat New Mexico State behind strong rushing attack

Rodrick Williams had 148 yards on the ground and Philip Nelson added 121 yards on the ground as well.

Jack Satzinger

The Gophers never trailed Saturday night against New Mexico State, winning 44-21 in Las Cruces, N.M., to improve to 2-0 for the second-straight season.

The team pounded the Aggies defense for 342 rushing yards — even without starting running back Donnell Kirkwood.  Kirkwood didn’t travel with the team, but back-ups Rodrick Williams and David Cobb led an explosive running game.

Williams finished with 148 rushing yards, including a 54-yard scamper. The sophomore running back has shown improvement from last season and has 161 rushing yards on the year — about 100 yards shy of his 2012 total. Cobb didn’t have as many carries as Williams but rushed for 56 yards on nine attempts.

“Rodrick [Williams] and David [Cobb] physically really ran hard,” head coach Jerry Kill said after the game. “I was pleased with the way they ran the ball. Philip [Nelson] made some good reads…there were a lot of good things in the game and certainly more improvement.”

Minnesota had 21 first downs in the game, 16 of which came on the ground. 

While the running game was key, the team’s run defense was just as crucial. With the Aggies trailing by two touchdowns in the third quarter and driving, senior defensive lineman Ra’Shede Hageman stopped NMSU running back Brandon Betancourt on a fourth and one.

Minnesota’s front seven looked better Saturday than it did last week against Nevada-Las Vegas. That improvement was on display early, when senior linebacker James Manuel deflected a short pass to force a New Mexico State punt. It showed again midway through the fourth quarter when senior linebacker Aaron Hill recovered a fumble and returned it 60 yards for a touchdown to give the Gophers a 44-14 advantage.

“I thought the coaches prepared us very well for their tempo and we were able to adjust on the spot,” Hill said. “I think that’s something that’s going to help us be successful as a defense this year.”

As Hill and the front seven appeared more comfortable, so did sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson and the Gophers offense.  Nelson ran for 122 yards and passed for 127 more, including a 48-yard play-action pass to Derrick Engel in the first half.

The Gophers also scored a special teams touchdown for the second-straight week when junior Marcus Jones returned a punt 65 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter.

Williams had his first career 100-yard rushing game Saturday, highlighted by a 54-yard run early in the third quarter. Williams’ previous career-high was 60 yards against Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas last year.

Kill attributed some of the running game’s improvement to the ramped up intensity they’ve experienced in practice.

“They practiced well and got rewarded,” Kill said. “You earn [it] when you work hard and I thought they did.”

Nate Gotlieb contributed to this report.