Gophers rushing attack secures win against Nebraska

Minnesota had 220 yards rushing in the first half alone.

Running back Shannon Brooks carries the ball at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 12.

Sydni Rose

Running back Shannon Brooks carries the ball at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 12.

John Miller

The Gophers found the weak point of the Nebraska defense on Saturday night, and they never stopped attacking it as they took down the Cornhuskers 34-7. 

After averaging 6.4 yards per carry on 52 rushes for 332 yards against Illinois last week, it’s hard to imagine a better game than that on the ground for the Gopher offense. 

Cue Saturday’s performance.

On a day where the game time temperature felt like 28 degrees with gusting winds and sleet, the Gophers needed their rushing attack to start off hot.

“That’s the kind of weather we love here in Minnesota,” Fleck said. “We prepared for it all week. I’m really proud of our players and how hard they played in it.” 

With a healthy stable of running backs on hand with the return of sophomore Mohamed Ibrahim, Minnesota found success against the No.81 ranked rush defense. The Gophers finished with 322 yards and four touchdowns on the ground. 

“All three of us out there is tough for defenses and we know that,” running back Rodney Smith said about the top three running backs being healthy. “It’s always good when you have fresh bodies at the running back position. It’s tough when you have to tackle three different guys.”

On the second play from scrimmage for the Gopher offense, Smith set the tone with a 35-yard rush to get Minnesota inside the Nebraska 30-yard line. Minnesota capped off the drive with a 15-yard touchdown reception by wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell.

In the first half Minnesota had five rushes that went for 15 yards or more and nine rushes that went for over 10 yards. At the half, the Gophers had amassed 220 yards on the ground. It only took them 23 carries to get there. 

Playing off the success the run game had in the first half allowed the Gophers to utilize play-action and trick the defensive backs on the first play of the half. Quarterback Tanner Morgan found wide receiver Rashod Bateman for a 45-yard strike to put Minnesota deep into Cornhusker territory. The drive would be capped off by Ibrahim’s second rushing touchdown of the day to put Minnesota up 21-0.

If there was any hope for Nebraska to come back, Smith ended it when he scored on a one-yard touchdown run to put the Gophers up 28-0 with less than four minutes to go in the third quarter.

The Gophers went back to the play action attack on the next series as Morgan faked the handoff, once again holding the defensive backs in place, leaving a wide open Tyler Johnson for a 45-yard catch to put Minnesota down at the Nebraska 1-yard line. Ibrahim punched in his third touchdown run of the day a play later.

Smith finished as the team’s leading rusher, gaining 139 yards on the ground and one touchdown to go along with it, his third straight game over 100 yards rushing. Close behind him, Shannon Brooks came up one yard shy of his second straight game with 100 yards on the ground.

“They put all their yards into a bucket,” Fleck said about the selflessness of the running back room. ”That running back room enjoys being around each other and that’s why they play so well collectively, they don’t care who goes in the game.”

It’s been a long time since the Gophers had their top three running backs available to play together. This was the first time that Smith, Brooks and Ibrahim played together, which proved difficult for the Nebraska defense.  

“We have three running backs that are capable of being an All-Big Ten performers that anybody in our league would like to have,” said offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca on Wednesday.

The team now stands at 6-0 with two favorable match-ups against Rutgers and Maryland the next two weeks. With bowl eligibility locked up, the Gophers are hoping there are bright things to come this season. 

“I believed that this team could be special and we are special,” Smith said.