Mohamed Ibrahim had an epiphany this past week, after watching fellow Gophers running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks tear it up against Illinois with 322 combined rushing yards.
“I was like, ‘You know what’s actually crazy?’ ” Ibrahim said. “‘Me, Rodney and Shannon have never played in the same game before.’ ”
Injuries have truncated the running backs to either a dynamic duo or sometimes a lone star. But not Saturday.
For the first time, Ibrahim, Smith and Brooks were all healthy. With every cutback, broken tackle and gap exposed, they proved the run game was no longer dormant, exploding with a 322-yard game as the Gophers trampled Nebraska 34-7 at TCF Bank Stadium in front of an announced crowd of 43,502. The Gophers are 3-0 in the Big Ten Conference and 6-0 overall, the first time they’ve done that since 2003. They’re also officially bowl-eligible.
Rodney Smith put any remaining doubts about the Gophers’ running game to rest on his first carry of the game, breaking out with a 35-yard gain. He finished with 139 yards on 18 carries and a touchdown. Brooks’ longest run of 28 yards helped him to 99 yards on 13 attempts. Ibrahim totaled 84 yards on 15 rushes while scoring three touchdowns.
Smith and Brooks, the two seniors in the running back room, missed most of last season with knee injuries. While Smith started the season, Brooks only returned at Purdue in Week 5. Ibrahim, who was the breakout star a season ago with those two injured, had not played the past three games, because of a non-contact leg injury from practice.
“Eighteen carries for Rodney, 13 carries for Shannon, 15 carries for Mohamed. Perfect,” Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said. “That running back room enjoys being around each other, and that’s why they play so well collectively. They don’t care who’s in the game. You will never see anybody pout. … They all want the ball. We already know that. … But we want to always make sure they can make it all the way through the end of the season.”
For the first part of the season, the Gophers’ passing game commanded attention. Receivers Rashod Bateman, Chris Autman-Bell and Tyler Johnson each achieved headliner games. And while that unit did score the first touchdown, a 15-yard Tanner Morgan pass to Autman-Bell, Smith’s 35-yarder was what made that possible.
The weather, in the 30s with intermittent snow, almost demanded a run-heavy offense, and the Gophers delivered. The offensive line, even without starting right tackle Daniel Faalele, stood tough against Nebraska’s big defensive lines. The tight ends continued their blocking prowess, creating holes for the running backs to exploit.
The Gophers defense didn’t go overshadowed, though. After starting the season with close games, the defense allowed just a field goal against Illinois, though Fleck took responsibility for that with an ill-timed timeout. They went 111 minutes and 27 seconds without conceding an offensive touchdown, going back to the end of the Purdue game in Week 5.
Safety Antoine Winfield Jr. attributed the stellar play the past two games to work put in during the week.
“We know that if we practice well, we get results,” Winfield said. “I think that definitely changed, and that’s just our mind-set now is, ‘I’ve just got to come in and just practice extremely hard.’ ”
The defense made more disruptive plays, tallying four sacks and five tackles for a loss. Linebacker Kamal Martin led the game with 15 tackles.
To be fair, Nebraska was without its starting quarterback in Adrian Martinez, instead relying on backup Noah Vedral. The Huskers also lost receiver Wan’Dale Robinson before halftime. The freshman, who can both run and catch the ball, left the field on a cart with an apparent left ankle injury.
But Nebraska’s special teams couldn’t hang on to the ball, fumbling seemingly every punt and kickoff return, possibly because of the slick conditions. And the defense couldn’t stop the run or the Gophers’ limited passes. Morgan went 8-for-13 for 128 yards and a touchdown, while Johnson managed a school-record tying 11th 100-yard game.
Morgan, though, said he was happy to just have the “best view in the house” for the first appearance of the Gophers’ running back trinity.
“It was fun. It was exciting,” Smith said. “All three of us out there is tough for defenses, and we know that. We all three have three different running styles, and we have fresh bodies rolling in. And that’s always good.”