Minnesota survives without leading rushers

Gophers escape upset-minded Georgia Southern after losing Rodney Smith and Mohamed Ibrahim.

Quarterback+Tanner+Morgan+carries+the+ball+at+TCF+Bank+Stadium+on+Saturday%2C+Sept.+14.++The+Gophers+defeated+Georgia+Southern+35-32.

Kamaan Richards

Quarterback Tanner Morgan carries the ball at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 14. The Gophers defeated Georgia Southern 35-32.

Nick Jungheim

On Saturday, the Gophers found themselves down by four points in the fourth quarter while also down their top two running backs. 

In the team’s first two games, only redshirt senior Rodney Smith and redshirt sophomore Mohamed Ibrahim got carries, but the Gophers needed all hands on deck in their 35-32 victory over Georgia Southern. In the second quarter, Minnesota held a 21-10 lead, but with Ibrahim not playing due to an injury sustained in practice and Smith having exited the game with what head coach P.J. Fleck called a sore oblique, the Eagles mounted a comeback.

Due to injuries, sub-par offensive line play and two fourth-quarter return touchdowns from Georgia Southern, Minnesota barely avoided an upset for the third consecutive week. With the game on the line, the offense bounced back from a third-and-29 at their own 6-yard line, driving all the way down the field until senior Tyler Johnson’s third touchdown of the game gave Minnesota the lead with 13 seconds left.

“We found a way to win again,” Fleck said. “This team has some of the most heart I’ve seen in my entire life. And that doesn’t get measured on a 40, or in height and weight. It gets measured when you play the game of football.”

Minnesota’s offense struggled for much of the second half without Smith, Ibrahim and redshirt senior Shannon Brooks, who is still recovering from an injury sustained last season. The Gophers only amassed 32 yards on their three possessions prior to the go-ahead touchdown drive.

In the first half, Smith appeared to be on pace for a productive afternoon, carrying 11 times for 57 yards. Despite exiting with an injury in the second quarter, he finished the day as the team’s leading rusher.

Minnesota remained committed to the run without Smith, despite limited effectiveness. Overall, the Gophers rushed 48 times for 93 yards, averaging just 1.9 yards per attempt for the game. Once again, an under-performing offensive line hindered Minnesota.

“I didn’t think we played very well up front,” Fleck said. “We need to get some things fixed. We’ve got to get things developed, we’ve got to get people developed.”

Freshman Cam Wiley and sophomore Bryce Williams carried the load after halftime but never found much room to run against the Eagles, who often stacked the box and overwhelmed Minnesota’s blockers. Wiley and Williams combined for a mere 55 yards on 25 carries.

Blocking remained an issue in all facets for Minnesota. After allowing four sacks against Fresno State, Minnesota allowed five against Georgia Southern. The Eagles had 11 total tackles for loss on Saturday. 

Unable to move the ball on the ground, Minnesota had to find alternative sources for offense. When quarterback Tanner Morgan did have time to throw, he was efficient, especially when targeting Johnson. The senior receiver had 10 catches for 140 yards while becoming the first player in program history to catch three touchdowns three different times in his career.

“It’s pretty cool,” Johnson said. “Just being out there, just working hard every play, you never know when your number’s going to be called and whenever my number was called today I just made the best of it.”

Minnesota’s defense also played well, helping amend for the stagnant offense. The Eagles’ only second-half touchdowns came on a 77-yard blocked field goal return and a 44-yard fumble return. Georgia Southern’s run-heavy, triple-option offense totaled only 123 yards on the ground.

“I thought we knew exactly what we needed to do going into the game,” linebacker Carter Coughlin said. “We were prepared unbelievably well, thanks to our coaches. I don’t think there was anything they did that surprised us.”

With a bye week coming up, Fleck said the team is glad to be 3-0, but they are also happy to have some time off before opening Big Ten play against Purdue in West Lafayette, Indiana on Sept. 28.

“We need to get some guys healthy,” Fleck said. “[The] bye week comes at a perfect time.”