CHAMPAIGN, ILL. – The Gophers football team had 48 rushing attempts Saturday. Mitch Leidner attempted 19 passes.
That level of imbalance was not by accident. Gusty winds and game situations dictated some of it, but a run-heavy emphasis serves as an acknowledgment of what the Gophers do well, and what they don’t do well.
“If you’re going to go down, you go down with your best,” coach Tracy Claeys said. “So we’re putting the ball in the hands of our best players.”
The Gophers didn’t go down against a woeful Illinois squad because they repeatedly put the ball in the hands of their dynamic tailback tandem of Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks.
Five rushing touchdowns fueled a 40-17 rout at Memorial Stadium and reaffirmed a narrative that has evolved since the preseason.
The Gophers have a senior quarterback with 36 career starts on his résumé, but the offense’s identity revolves around Smith & Brooks, not Leidner.
“We know we can run the ball even when defenses attempt to stack the box,” Smith said. “I would say we have found our identity.”
So much preseason conversation focused on Leidner’s experience and alleged improvement. Eight games later, Leidner has assumed a secondary role in favor of a two-headed rushing attack, which is a smart strategy — for now.
The Gophers have proved they can beat bad teams with a one-dimensional offense. They didn’t need robust passing against the Big Ten’s junior varsity, Rutgers and Illinois.
Leidner threw for only 112 yards Saturday, and a healthy chunk of that came when Drew Wolitarsky turned a short dump-off into a 35-yard gain. That was the Gophers’ longest pass play of the season.
A mostly nonexistent passing game might not suffice when they play at Nebraska and Wisconsin. Leidner and his receivers need to join the party at some point if the Gophers hope to contend in the West Division in November.
Gophers quarterbacks — backup Conor Rhoda filled in one game for injured Leidner — have thrown only six touchdown passes in eight games. Only eight teams nationally had accounted for fewer touchdown passes entering this weekend.
On the flip side, the Gophers have rushed for 23 touchdowns, which puts them on pace for their most rushing touchdowns in a season since setting a school record with 46 in 2003.
The offense that season featured the marquee duo of Marion Barber and Laurence Maroney.
Smith & Brooks aren’t at that level yet, but they’re supplying a 1-2 punch that is masking the offense’s passing limitations. For now.
“I don’t know if [teams] have a better combination anywhere between the two of them,” Claeys said.
Smith, in particular, has flourished lately and deserves more attention among top Big Ten performers. He leads the conference in all-purpose yards and got 100 yards or more rushing for the fifth time this season on Saturday, along with two TD runs.
“He’s an unbelievable player,” Leidner said. “I love handing the ball off to him and watching him work.”
Next week Brooks might reclaim that starring role. They’re interchangeable in that regard. They should be designated 1 and 1A on the depth chart, both capable of carrying the offense at any given time.
Former Gophers coach Glen Mason used to say that Big Ten teams need a “pair and a spare” with running backs because of the physical punishment endured in a 12-game season.
The Gophers have that arrangement with Smith & Brooks and Kobe McCrary as the third wheel.
Defenses increasingly are focusing more and more on Smith & Brooks, almost daring the Gophers to pass. Smith said they see “a lot of man-to-man coverages to have more guys free to play the run.”
Smith’s 20-yard touchdown run in the first quarter showed the benefits of having two running backs who demand equal attention.
Brooks lined up outside and went in motion on a jet sweep. The linebackers flowed with him, leaving Smith a wide running lane.
“When he’s jetting across, you don’t know if he’s getting the ball or if I’m getting the ball,” Smith said.
They have a good thing going right now. Smith & Brooks have given the offense its identity. But with better competition ahead, they will need help and possibly a Plan B.