A mere opportunity proves big for Pinnix

by David McCoy

It’s entirely possible this week’s Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week might not even see the field Saturday.

And it’s not because Minnesota running back Amir Pinnix is injured.

Rather, it was injuries to Minnesota’s top two running backs, Laurence Maroney and Gary Russell, that provided Pinnix with the opportunity to play in last Saturday’s 41-18 win over Michigan State.

Pinnix used Saturday’s spotlight to rush for a career-high 206 yards and a touchdown on 32 carries and was named Player of the Week for his efforts.

“As a little kid, this was something that I dreamed about, playing in a Big Ten game against an awesome team like Michigan State,” Pinnix said. “And I just tried to stay ready.”

But Pinnix won’t be the only Gophers running back ready when Minnesota travels to Iowa for Saturday’s regular season finale at 11 a.m. at Kinnick Stadium.

Maroney guaranteed that he’ll return this week and coach Glen Mason indicated that Russell will be back as well. Given that Minnesota is the first team in Big Ten history to have three running backs earn Player of the Week honors in the same season, Mason has quite a decision on his hands.

How much will each get the ball?

“I’ve heard about quarterback controversies, but I guess we’ve got a tailback controversy,” Mason said. “Sometimes a guy is good enough to be a starter, but he’s not the best guy, so the other guy plays. And the third guy and so forth. So that’s how we go about it.”

So despite putting up the sexy numbers Saturday, Pinnix might get the short end of the stick again at Iowa.

When asked about it at his Tuesday news conference, Mason said he hadn’t decided how much each running back would play.

“It’s not like little league baseball where everybody gets a chance to bat,” Mason said. “It’s not a popularity contest. As a coach, you want as many kids to play as you possibly can, but at the same time, you are teaching a real life lesson as well, that the best guy is going to play. The guy that gives us the best chance is going to play. That’s how I make those decisions.”

Mason said he already had to offer some encouragement to Pinnix this season after the sophomore didn’t see any action in five straight games.

After rushing for 83 yards against Florida Atlantic, Pinnix rode the pine until the end of Minnesota’s 42-21 win Nov. 5 at Indiana.

“He just told me that good things happen to good people and that I was a good person and to stay ready and stay focused,” Pinnix said. “And I just leaned on my faith and kept praying every day.”

Those prayers carried Pinnix to a career day against the Spartans, but they might have to carry him through more bench-warming now that Maroney and Russell are healthy.

“Amir just has to be patient,” said Maroney, who is Pinnix’s roommate. “Right now he has some great backs in front of him with Gary and me. He’s just as good as us, but we can’t play everybody at one time. I know he’s that good of a back.”

So for a guy that Maroney said could be the starter on a number of other Big Ten teams, the waiting game resumes.

“I’ll sit back and I’ll wait for my turn,” Pinnix said. “I’m not selfish at all. It’s about a team, and whenever you’re called upon you have to come up and step up. So if I have to wait again, I’ll wait again.”