When the Gophers announced that primary running back Donnell Kirkwood would miss time with an ankle injury, it seemed like bad news.
Freshman back Berkley Edwards had yet to play in a game after sustaining a high ankle sprain of his own, and the Gophers’ running back corps — a major part of the team’s identity — was suddenly looking a lot thinner.
Instead, with junior David Cobb and sophomore Rodrick Williams Jr. shouldering the load, the Gophers have carried on without missing a beat.
The pair combined Saturday for four touchdowns on 23 carries for 138 yards — an average of 6 yards per rush — playing a critical role in Minnesota’s 29-12 win over Western Illinois.
“Those two kids are starting to run hard, and we need that,” said defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, who acted as head coach in the second half after head coach Jerry Kill suffered a seizure. “Right now, they’re moving our offense, those two backs are — cutting it off in big chunks.”
Williams led off the Gophers scoring with a 1-yard touchdown in the second quarter and then piled on with the final score, running 37 yards with 8:52 to play. It continued a trend of improvement from the 5-11 Texas native, who played in all of the final eight games last season as a true freshman.
Cobb, however, is just starting to give a glimpse of his potential. Also a Texas native, the 5-11 Cobb has played in all three Gopher games this season after appearing in just five his sophomore year and four as a freshman. Saturday, he was the No. 1 handoff target, accumulating 82 yards on 13 carries, both career highs, and scored twice — ramming a pair of short touchdowns through the Leathernecks defense in the second half.
“If you’re in there for one play or 15 plays, you want to take advantage of it like it’s going to be your last play and just make the most of it,” Cobb said. “The coaches do a great job of instilling confidence in all of us. So when it gets to game time, the game is a lot easier than practice because you’ve done the reps a million times.”
With the big plays taking care of themselves just fine, the question is how the depth chart changes once Kirkwood and Edwards return. Kirkwood will be evaluated on Sunday, but it is probable that the junior will be healthy enough to play next week against San Jose State.
“It’s all about whoever’s got the hot hand,” Claeys said. “That’s how we do it. Our kids know our injury policy. If you get injured and the player that replaces you is playing better than you at the time you left, you’ve got to go beat them out.”