‘Spare tire’ McCrary stars in absence of two starting running backs

Running back Kobe McCrary ended the game with three touchdowns, matching his 2016 total.

Running back Kobe McCrary runs with the ball on Saturday, Sept. 16 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

Courtney Deutz

Running back Kobe McCrary runs with the ball on Saturday, Sept. 16 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

Drew Cove

Kobe McCrary started the game as a third-string running back and ended it with three touchdowns.

McCrary had 107 rushing yards and three scores Saturday while running back Shannon Brooks didn’t play and running back Rodney Smith was out for the second half with an injury in Minnesota’s 34-3 win against Middle Tennessee at TCF Bank Stadium.

“All the running backs are prepared,” McCrary said. “Next man up. Rodney, Shannon, all of us are good enough to play if somebody goes down.”

The senior had his best production in the game throughout the third quarter, where he rushed for 51 yards and a 1-yard touchdown run.

“We had a spare tire tonight, and that wasn’t a spare tire, though, that was a monster-truck, bigfoot tire,” said head coach P.J. Fleck. “He had to step in … and [McCrary] knew he’d probably get a little more carries, but then [he] became the feature back. … I loved how he ran.”

After two years at Butler Community College, McCrary transferred to Minnesota in 2016 for his junior and senior year, playing behind two well-established running backs.

While he is on the depth chart behind both Brooks and Smith, McCrary started one game, and played in 12 of the Gophers’ 13 games in his first season.

McCrary didn’t break his best game yardage in Saturday’s game, though. That came when he had 176 yards and two touchdowns against Indiana State in 2016.

The running back had three rushing touchdowns against Middle Tennessee Saturday, his single-game high for touchdowns with the Gophers.

“It’s no surprise,” said quarterback Conor Rhoda. “You guys saw it a little bit last year, you guys saw what he could do. We’ve been seeing it since he stepped on campus.”

This amount of playing time and number of carries was a surprise for McCrary.

While Brooks dressed for the game, he was on the sidelines for the whole game and didn’t see any playing time due to an injury, Fleck said. Another turn of events saw Smith go down to injury as well in the second quarter.

“[Smith] just got dinged up,” Fleck said. “[I] haven’t talked to our doctors.”

Smith, before he exited the game, ran for 107 yards on 16 attempts.

Smith took a big hit on the last play of the first half and was eyed by trainers when the team left the field. He didn’t see any playing time in the second half.

In total, the Gophers combined for 221 rushing yards, with Smith and McCrary totaling 107 yards each. Minnesota has 643 rushing yards and nine touchdowns through three games this season.

With the three touchdowns, McCrary matched his season total from last year.

“What you guys see is on the stat sheet,” Fleck said. “I get to see him in the growth of the last eight months.”