Resurgent rushing attack sparks Gophers offense in homecoming victory

Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks combined for 322 rushing yards against Illinois.

Running back Rodney Smith carries the ball at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019. The Gophers defeated Illinois 40 to 17 to bring their record to 5-0.

Jasmin Kemp

Running back Rodney Smith carries the ball at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019. The Gophers defeated Illinois 40 to 17 to bring their record to 5-0.

Nick Jungheim

Entering the homecoming game against Illinois, Minnesota’s ground game ranked No. 126 in the country in average yards per carry, but that weakness turned into a pronounced strength on Saturday.

The Gophers rode their redshirt senior running backs to a 40-17 victory while averaging 6.4 yards per carry as a team. The run game proved to be the missing piece Minnesota needed in order to play their most complete game of the season, as they improved to 5-0 and defeated an opponent by more than seven points for the first time this year.

“We were running the ball at will,” quarterback Tanner Morgan said. “We were getting a lot of yards, we were dominating the line of scrimmage.

In the first half, the Gophers ran the ball 23 times for 196 yards. Redshirt senior Rodney Smith accounted for most of the production with 146 yards on 12 attempts and redshirt senior Shannon Brooks pitched in with nine carries for 51 yards.

Through the first four games, Minnesota’s longest rush of the season was 17 yards. Smith shattered that in the second quarter with a 64-yard gain that set up a receiving touchdown from senior Tyler Johnson two plays later. Brooks added another score later in the quarter on a 21-yard run of his own.

“It was relieving to finally have an explosive run,” Smith said. “We’d been close to getting one and to finally get one was exciting.”

Increased production from the run game was much-needed for the Gophers as the passing attack struggled early. In wet conditions, Morgan went 4-12 passing in the first half, including an interception that Illinois returned for a touchdown.

With Illinois loading the box, the Gophers pass game started to open up in the second half. Morgan connected with receiver Rashod Bateman on the first play after halftime for a 59-yard reception and then with redshirt sophomore Chris Autman-Bell two plays later for a score that put Minnesota ahead 23-10.

“We want to be balanced,” head coach P.J Fleck said. “I think the teams that can be balanced at any moment, and can sustain and control the balance, are going to be the most dangerous teams.”

As Illinois tried adjusting to account for the pass, Minnesota shifted back to the run as they extended their lead. Smith and Brooks continued to be productive, consistently picking up first downs on the ground. Smith credited improved offensive line play for opening running lanes for the backs.

“They definitely take pride in getting better each and every week,” Smith said. “I think you can see the growth. They’re getting more comfortable out there as a unit. Those guys are getting better and smarter.

Smith set a new career-best on the afternoon with 211 yards rushing to go along with a touchdown. It was the most rushing yards for any Minnesota player in a Big Ten game since Laurence Maroney ran for 258 yards against Wisconsin in 2005.

Brooks rushed 16 times for 258 yards. In just his second game back after missing all but one game in 2018 due to injuries, Brooks proved he is still a valuable asset to the Minnesota offense when healthy.

“Shannon’s lost his mother and then you have another knee injury,” Fleck said. “Most people in the world would fall. The one percent find a way to change their best, look at it as an opportunity to grow and become better. That’s where I’m so proud of Shannon.”

Moving forward, the Gophers will need to build off Saturday’s performance. Upcoming opponents include three of the nation’s top-10 rushing defenses in Wisconsin (1), Penn State (7) and Iowa (10). 

Before that, Minnesota will try to remain undefeated as they host Nebraska Saturday, Oct. 12.