It was one play, but it was a play 30 minutes of football in the making and it showed the dilemma that the Gophers offense creates when functioning at optimal efficiency.

Tanner Morgan connected with Rashod Bateman for a 59-yard completion on the first play of the second half. If football awarded assists, the law firm of Smith&Brooks deserved one for setting ideal conditions for that big pass play to occur.

The abundance of praise directed at the Gophers wide receiver corps the first month of the season was appropriate and well-earned.

Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks proved again Saturday that they aren’t too shabby themselves. Nobody should view that dynamic duo as supporting actors.

The senior running back tandem looked like their old selves pre-injury in combining for 322 rushing yards in a 40-17 win over Illinois at TCF Bank Stadium.

VideoVideo (00:35): Rodney Smith on Saturday rushed for a career-high 211 yards in the Gophers 40-17 win against Illinois

“Got to be balanced,” Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said. “You have to be balanced to win a lot of games.”

The Gophers are capable of dismantling bad teams with a one-dimensional approach, but in order to contend in the Big Ten West in November and for their offense to operate at full capacity, Saturday’s game serves as the ideal blueprint.

Ironically, that bomb to Bateman reaffirmed Fleck’s insistence that his offense isn’t a pass-first showcase of playmakers at receiver but a marriage of run and pass that accentuates the strength of both.

Smith and Brooks rushed for 197 yards in the first half, averaging 9.3 yards per carry. They had Illinois’ full attention. Gophers offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca figured as much.

The Gophers led 16-10 at halftime. They played a sloppy first half and needed a jolt.

On the first play after halftime, quarterback Tanner Morgan stuck the ball in Smith’s gut for what looked like a handoff to the right. Illinois’ linebackers and a safety crashed down toward the line. Bateman jogged off the line as if he were blocking. Then he took off up field.

Morgan pulled the ball back, causing Illinois defenders to turn and retreat, knowing they had been fooled. Bateman was wide open for an easy catch.

Hat tip to Smith&Brooks.

“The teams that can be balanced at any moment and can control and sustain the balance are going to be the most dangerous teams,” Fleck said. “There are times [defenses] are going to say, ‘Hey, this person has to beat us.’ Then you have to have the ability to beat them that way, if they’re going to take away and sellout to one deal.”

The (re)emergence of their running game should keep defenses honest in how they choose to defend the Gophers offense. Purdue loaded up to stop the run last week, and the Gophers ran them ragged with slant passes and a historic performance by Morgan.

Morgan and the passing game misfired in the first half Saturday, but the running game picked them up. That’s complementary football at its best.

Many of us have gushed about the individual and collective brilliance of Bateman, Tyler Johnson and Chris Autman-Bell. That trio saved the Gophers with clutch catches in nonconference wins. Leaning on them isn’t a bad place to start. But balance makes life easier on everyone.

The weather Saturday provided ideal circumstances for the Gophers to flex their muscle with a running game that has been mostly underwhelming so far this season.

The line had its best blocking performance to date, and Smith&Brooks created their own running room at times with stiff arms, broken tackles and nifty cuts.

Their dominance was encouraging as they return to form after knee injuries ruined their 2018 season. Brooks made his season debut last week at Purdue and ran like a guy trying to make up for lost time. He looked overly excited.

Fleck saw a more relaxed Brooks in practice this week and he responded with 111 rushing yards. Smith recorded 146 of his career-high 211 yards in the first half.

“It’s nice to have Rodney and Shannon back, huh?” Fleck said.

They make the entire offense look different.

 

Chip Scoggins chip.scoggins@startribune.com