Gophers ground game keeping offense afloat

The Gophers have three potential game changers in the running game.

Adam Richard

The GophersâÄô offense as a whole has looked poor at times, but its running game continues to improve.

MinnesotaâÄôs ground attack is led by a three-headed monster of senior Duane Bennett, redshirt freshman Donnell Kirkwood and junior quarterback MarQueis Gray. This running game has allowed Minnesota to stay competitive in games that may have otherwise been blowouts.

The speed and power combination of Bennett and Kirkwood has proven effective, with each of them darting past or plowing over defenders. Saturday against NDSU, each reached the 70-yard plateau, a feat that hasnâÄôt been done by two Gophers in the same game since 2007 with quarterback Adam Weber and running back Amir Pinnix.

The Gophers like their tailback situation so much, they felt it possible to shift Lamonte Edwards to linebacker to try to get him on the field more. That move opened a spot for Texas native and freshman David Cobb, who got his first carry of the year Saturday.

Bennett is the senior voice of the backfield and preaches the team concept to his fellow players. In the game against NDSU, Bennett shined for 74 yards, but the previous week at Miami (Ohio) he had only 12. He found a way to contribute in that game by blocking a punt and returning it for a touchdown that assured the GopherâÄôs lone win so far this season.

Bennett said heâÄôs not worried about individual statistics or individual roles. Kill said in August camp that Bennett had a leg up on other backs because of his ability to pick up blitzes and blocking schemes.

Kirkwood, a stout 5-foot-10-inch powerhouse, just returned from an early injury against Miami (Ohio) and has barreled over defenders in his two games to an average of 5.43 yards per carry and three touchdowns.

A hamstring tweak slowed him down against NDSU, but he said he is optimistic that it will not keep him from next weekâÄôs game.

Kirkwood deflected credit to the team and particularly to the offensive line.

âÄúThe line moves them back. It was easy work from the backfield. The holes were there and the first five yards come easy,âÄù Kirkwood said.

Gray is one game removed from breaking MinnesotaâÄôs all-time record for rushing yards in a game for a quarterback with 171.

He has achieved numerous first downs with his legs on long runs this year.

The running game has allowed more opportunities for play action passes. However, the Gophers have yet to take full advantage of this running attack because theyâÄôve struggled to convert in the passing game or to develop a consistent offensive rhythm.

Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said he likes his options at tailback and is pleased with how the running game is developing.

The roles of the Gophers tailbacks are varied, but simple, he said.

âÄúWe simplified a few things and really emphasized being physical. You canâÄôt go through [the] schedule we got with just one guy. We have four tailbacks and whoever is sweating, weâÄôre going to keep riding him,âÄù Limegrover said.