Chicago – A football game, to Kirk Ciarrocca, plays out like an interactive story.
“There are paragraphs that come up in the story, and these plays are like those paragraphs, or pages of the story, and they can change when you make a play,” the Gophers offensive coordinator said. “We made a lot of the story-changing plays.”
Indeed the Gophers did in last Saturday’s 54-21 rout of Nebraska, particularly in the rushing game. Minnesota rolled over the Cornhuskers by rushing for 409 yards, averaging 9.1 yards on their 45 carries. And it wasn’t only one player doing the damage. Quarterback Demry Croft ran for 183 yards, and running backs Rodney Smith and Kobe McCrary had 134 and 93, respectively.
With such a productive story last week, what will the Gophers do for an encore? That will play out Saturday at Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill., when Minnesota (5-5, 2-5 Big Ten) takes on No. 23 Northwestern (7-3, 5-2), which has won five consecutive games. The Gophers will try to keep running downhill, hoping to add another victory that will earn them bowl eligibility.
To do so, however, they’ll match that running attack against Northwestern’s stingy run defense. The Wildcats are allowing 109.6 rushing yards per game, the second least in the Big Ten. Conversely, Northwestern is last in the conference in pass defense, allowing 278.9 yards per game. But don’t expect the Gophers to suddenly become pass-happy.
“We are going to make sure that we exhaust every option in the run game possible,” coach P.J. Fleck said. “That’s how we’re built this year.”
Being built that way worked well against Nebraska, a team whose defensive resolve disappeared as the yards piled up. It’ll be more of a challenge against Northwestern, which has held five Big Ten opponents to fewer than 100 yards rushing and gave up only 109 to run-focused Wisconsin.
The Gophers will need Croft to follow up with those deft option fakes that had Huskers defenders guessing, especially on his 73-yard touchdown run after he faked a handoff to McCrary. When opponents must account for Croft’s running, that leads for more space for Smith and McCrary. Consider Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald impressed with Minnesota’s weapons in the backfield.
“I thought Croft played great. They took advantage of some things schematically, got him in some one-on-one situations. He did a great job in the zone-read scheme,” Fitzgerald said. “Smith is, here we go again, another great back in Big Ten play. No doubt our defense will have their hands full.”
That’s true for the Gophers offense, too, because Northwestern features a front four of ends Joe Gaziano and Samdup Miller and tackles Tyler Lancaster and Jordan Thompson that has combined for 13 sacks and 25 tackles for loss. Throw in active linebacker Paddy Fisher, a freshman who ranks second in the Big Ten with 95 tackles, and the Wildcats are formidable.
“Their front four is really stout. They’re all big guys, very physical,” said Gophers tight end Nate Wozniak, a 6-10, 280-pounder whose run blocking against Nebraska drew raves from Fleck. “They’ve been impressive throughout the year; they haven’t given up a lot on the run.
“But we’re definitely not going give up on trying to run the ball. We’re going to run the ball against them, and I think we’ll be successful as well.”
Ciarrocca sees an offense that’s gaining confidence through preparation.
It might not have showed up earlier in the season, but it all came together for one productive game with those story-changing plays.
“When you’re grinding every day, that’s hard. Work is hard,” he said. “At some point, you’d like to be able to have a reward for that work. That was a nice reward for them on Saturday. It’s a tribute to their character.”
Can they do it again, against a much better defense?
“It’s a challenge, but that’s the point,” redshirt freshman center Conner Olson said. “It’s Big Ten football. You’ve got to be able to run the ball, and that’s what we intend to do.”