Eric Miller, University of Minnesota
Donnell Kirkwood rushed for more than 900 yards last season, but his backups carried the Gophers on Saturday night in Las Cruces, N.M.
Sophomore Rodrick Williams Jr. and junior David Cobb filled in for Kirkwood, who was sidelined with an ankle injury. The pair pounded New Mexico State for more than 200 yards and two touchdowns as the Gophers won 44-21 and improved to 2-0 on the season.
“Both those kids played outstanding, physical football,” head coach Jerry Kill said Sunday. “They ran the ball hard. I’d imagine [New Mexico State’s] safety is pretty sore today.”
With Kirkwood in Minneapolis recovering from his ankle injury, Williams Jr. and Cobb received most of the carries Saturday. Cobb scored the first touchdown of the game — a 14-yard run early in the second quarter that gave the Gophers a 13-0 lead. Williams Jr. scored on a one-yard run later in the quarter.
Cobb finished with 56 yards on nine carries, but the Gophers tapered his workload in the second half. Williams Jr. ran for 87 yards on eight carries in the second half and finished with 16 carries for 148 yards — both career highs.
Williams Jr. rushed for 13 yards in the Gophers’ season opener — a 51-23 victory over Nevada-Las Vegas. Kirkwood, who ran for 926 yards and six touchdowns last season, sustained an ankle injury during the second half of that game.
Williams Jr. said he saw Kirkwood’s injury as an opportunity to gain playing time but said Kirkwood will come back “a lot harder than he was before.”
“He’s not going to just let me just take his spot away,” Williams Jr. said.
Kill appeared pleased with the team’s offense, which ran for 342 yards, the most in his tenure with Minnesota. He said he thought the offensive line improved from the previous game but still needs to “clean some things up.”
The line helped sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson rush for 122 yards and a touchdown. He scored his touchdown on a one-yard run early in the fourth quarter that gave the Gophers a 37-14 lead and effectively put the game out of reach for NMSU.
Nelson completed eight passes for 127 yards and had one interception. He wasn’t asked to throw too much, especially after the Gophers’ 24-point second quarter.
Cobb and Williams Jr. ran for touchdowns early in the second quarter and junior Marcus Jones returned a punt 65 yards for a touchdown just before halftime, giving the Gophers a 27-7 lead.
The Gophers also had a defensive touchdown for the second week in a row. Late in the fourth quarter, senior linebacker Aaron Hill returned a fumble 50 yards for a touchdown, giving the team a 44-14 lead.
– Junior cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun sustained a knee injury early in the game and did not return. Kill said the team will know more about his status after he undergoes an MRI.
– Sophomore defensive lineman Alex Keith sustained a hand injury, Kill said.
– Nelson appeared to injure his throwing shoulder in the third quarter but did not sit out. Kill said on Sunday that he seemed fine after the game.
– Junior Derrick Wells played his first game of the season after sitting out against UNLV with an injury. Wells, the team’s leading returning tackler, recorded two tackles Saturday.